GATLINBURG, Tenn. — As two wildfires that nearly destroyed this tourist town continue to smolder in the surrounding mountains, officials vowed to reopen for business Friday.
“I want to let everyone know that Gatlinburg is still here,” Mayor Mike Werner said. “The shopping district is intact. People need to know that the beloved pancake houses are still standing. The doughnut shops, the candy stores and caramel corn places are all still here. Our businesspeople are working hard to get open by the end of this week.
“We are mountain tough.”
The drive to reopen downtown less than two weeks after much of the town burned makes sense from a business perspective. Sevier County, where Gatlinburg sits near Great Smoky Mountains National Park just south of Knoxville, raked in $2 billion last year in tourism alone, ranking it third in that category behind Nashville and Memphis, according to Tennessee’s tourism commission.
But visitors who flock to Gatlinburg for the start of the busy Christmas season this weekend will see more than the beloved fun rides and amusing replicas of King Kong scaling a skyscraper and the Titanic hitting an iceberg. They will drive past the frightful remains of hotels and apartments that burned on the main street into the city.
On the steep roads that branch off into scorched mountains, tourists can see where showcase homes were reduced to their foundations. More than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed, 14 people lost their lives, and more than 125 were injured.
Two juveniles charged with aggravated arson sat at the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center awaiting arraignment. On Wednesday, when police handed down the charges, hundreds of people were still in Red Cross shelters and hotel rooms, and the smell of smoke was still strong on the main drag into Gatlinburg.
Many of the hotel maids, store cashiers, restaurant food-prep assistants and trash-haulers who make the city work are still piecing their lives back together. Hundreds of people lost everything they owned, from driver’s licenses to cars parked by the curb to their household belongings.
April Calhoun, a cashier at a Family Dollar store, said her family barely survived. When the fire struck without warning late Nov. 28, they staggered from their apartment to a sidewalk off East Parkway, the road that ushers visitors into town, struggling to breathe.
Calhoun said she locked eyes with her husband in the orange haze outside their apartment and cried. “To the left, there was fire. Behind us. All of downtown. We were like, ‘We’re not going to make it.’ We just thought: ‘We’re dead. There’s no way out.’ ”
They could barely see three steps ahead. They held shirts over the noses of their children, ages 4 to 11, who were already wheezing. “I knew that if something was going to happen, it was going to happen to the kids first because they are so small,” she said. “We didn’t want to say anything, but they could see their whole world was on fire.”
A stranger in a truck stopped out of nowhere and offered the family a ride that saved their lives, she said this week while sitting at a Red Cross shelter, wearing donated clothes.
Two of her daughters, Alexis and Piper, sat on either side of her, staring blankly. A Red Cross official said they appeared to be experiencing trauma.
“My daughter is having to deal with her best friend being found dead with her mother,” Calhoun said of Alexis, 11.
Her friend, Chloe Reed, 12, set out with her mother, Constance, and sister Lily, 9, in an attempt to escape the fire in another part of Gatlinburg, off Ski Mountain Road in Chalet Village. They were found dead after a five-day search.
The girls were sixth-graders at the Pi Beta Phi K-8 school. On the afternoon before their lives were threatened, they talked and laughed during recess the way they usually did.
Alexis knew Chloe was missing and became emotional at the shelter when she learned her friend did not make it. “I was kind of crying. I was really sad and crying. I just couldn’t believe she would die,” the girl said.
“I’m really happy that all of my children are alive and that we are here and that we’re together,” said April Calhoun. “I know that could have been us, and my entire heart goes out to that family. They must’ve been so scared.”
The Chimney Tops 2 and Cobbly Nob fires, as they’re known, were freakish blazes fueled by drought, high winds and a decades-long buildup of underbrush resulting from the rush to douse previous fires to protect the park and county.
Thirty-mph winds pushed flames over mountains and catapulted burning material onto parched brush. Soon the fire took on the personality of monster blazes that ravage California, New Mexico, Nevada and the rest of the West but rarely the Southeast.
Sevier County, Gatlinburg and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency are on the defensive, trying to explain why many residents were not warned, why news stations broadcast reports that the fire was far away even as the wind pushed over the mountains and down the slopes toward their homes.
Officials said winds damaged communications equipment, hampering their ability to alert residents. “No one could have predicted that a front would come in with near-hurricane winds,” said Henri Grissino-Mayer, a geography professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
Yet while the sudden wind that carried fire to the welcome mats of hundreds of homes was unpredictable, Grissino-Mayer said, the wildfire was foreseen. As a fire ecologist, he has issued warnings that for years went unheeded by people who said the temperate Great Smoky Mountains are too wet to burn.
Local lore holds that the mountains are called the Smokies because of the clouds and fog, but before the park was established in 1934, the mountains burned all the time, Grissino-Mayer said. Meanwhile, the resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge kept expanding into burn zones.
“I will tell you it’s going to happen again,” he said. “These forests are supposed to burn. It might not happen till 10 years from now, but it will. And they [people] will rebuild from this. It’s what we do. In the face of catastrophe, we want to show how resilient we are as humans.”
Despite two days of rain earlier this week, fires are still burning in the surrounding forest; Chimney Tops 2 covers 17,000 acres, and Cobbly Nob is 815. Both are about half-contained, with 780 firefighters and 61 fire engines, helicopters and bulldozers fighting to put them out.
Downtown Gatlinburg has been closed but is intact, suffering little more than smoke damage and two weeks of revenue loss.
“It only takes one building to catch fire and they would have all gone up,” Grissino-Mayer said, because the stores are connected like rowhouses. “The downtown area is extremely lucky.”
“I love Gatlinburg. But it’s all wood, and as a fire ecologist, I look at it as all fuel to burn. It looks beautiful. It’s very rustic. It’s what we all want to see. But it’s wood.”
Forests need fire to grow and diversify, and there is debate among ecologists across the United States over whether officials should let more fires burn. Fire clears away pine needles and leaves so seeds can reach dirt. It opens pine cones to release seeds. It brings down branches and other nutrient-rich shrubbery so they can enrich the soil.
Without fire, many conservationists say, the fires next time will be larger and more aggressive.
The lingering smoke on Nov. 28 was annoying enough for some hotel guests to cut their visits short and go home. It seemed to get worse by the hour, and no one seemed to know why.
Katrina Mills looked at the sky, wrinkled her face and went back indoors at her place off East Parkway. Coty Weaver went Christmas shopping with his wife and 7-year-old daughter, Kylie. Michael Gentzkow returned home to his place off the parkway and undressed to his boxers to watch a movie.
Like most of those people, April Calhoun, 31, watched the television news for signs. Her husband, Terry, 32, covered every opening in the apartment with heavy-duty duct tape because the smoke was so thick.
“The news stories had said all day it was from the Chimney fires 10 miles away. No one was in any danger,” Calhoun said.
About 8 p.m., it was clear to everyone that the reports were wrong. Mills’s son burst into her door. “The mountain’s on fire!” At 8:30, Gentzkow looked out his door and shouted to his fiancee, who was on the phone with police. “Oh my God, we’re getting the hell out of here,” he said. “This place is burning.” “The whole side of the mountain was flames shooting out everywhere,” he later recalled. On the road home, Weaver stopped at a police blockade that would not let him pass.
It was not until 9 p.m., after the television and phones suddenly cut off, that the Calhouns peeked out the door. April recalled that her husband’s face went pale.
“He turned around and said, April, we got to get out. We got to get out now!”
Her anger remains strong. “It’s ridiculous that that many people had to die in something like this when it could’ve been prevented,” she said at the shelter, while a man dressed as Santa tried to cheer children into singing carols. “I can’t believe there were no alerts.”
Sevier County officials said they contacted the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency to ask for an evacuation alert to Gatlinburg late that Monday. But the wind had already disabled phone, Internet and electricity service, interrupting all communication.
Weaver’s house and black Mazda 6 burned to nothing in a fire so hot that it melted the car’s tire rims. But he gave his misfortune a positive spin.
“A lot of that comes down to our faith in Christ. We look at this and see so much good is coming from it. Our nation’s divided, and so many things are keeping us apart . . . and all of a sudden here, it doesn’t matter what color or race, all of a sudden we’re helping each other,” he said.
In the next breath, he said the church where he and his wife were married burned down across the street from his house.
Logan Coykendall opened two hotels his company owns to firefighters, National Guardsmen, his own newly homeless workers and others who needed shelter.
“It’s obviously a catastrophic event going on that my team is in the middle of,” Coykendall said. He was forced to evacuate guests from threatened hotels in Gatlinburg and put them up at hotels in Pigeon Forge. He estimated that his losses at the two hotels amounted to $10,000 per day.
“It wasn’t a hard decision for us,” he said. “Emergency responders were sleeping on the ground.”
Calhoun saw all the good of a community coming together, and Red Cross workers have been so kind to her family that she has decided to stay as long as they will let them.
But part of the reason she is staying in the shelter is a growing distrust in her community — the emergency managers who failed to alert everyone, the inaccurate reports on the television news, neighbors who panicked and left her apartment complex without bothering to knock on her door.
“No one had done anything to tell me. They said they went door to door. They did not in my neighborhood,” she said. But there was a silver lining, a stranger whose name she did not get after he drove her family through the fire.
“He’s an angel,” she said. “He saved all of our lives.”
“The past 11 days have been the most challenging and emotional days our community has likely ever had to endure,” said Cassius Cash, superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He said love, strength and support, such as that from the stranger who helped Calhoun, eased the pain. “Our community has shone brightly in the midst of this disaster and proven that we are truly mountain tough.”