Drought Conditions: Personal Accounts from the 2016 Gatlinburg Wildfires

Drought Conditions: Personal Accounts from the 2016 Gatlinburg Wildfires

WBIR-TV

November 1, 2016—Because of the danger of wildfire, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has temporarily banned all backcountry fires. East Tennessee is in the midst of a drought, and with the falling leaves now on the ground, the danger of wildfire is very high. Thousands of acres have burned across the state in the last few weeks because of the extremely dry conditions, and last weekend, the U.S. Forest Service implemented strict fire restrictions in the Cherokee National Forest which limits fires in undeveloped areas.

‘With the current drought conditions, it is imperative that we reduce the risk of human-caused wildfires during this period of extreme fire danger,’ said Superintendent Cassius Cash. ‘The park has not banned back country campfires since 2007, but these unusually dry conditions warrant the restriction.’”

 

Me

I am twelve. I am standing in the middle of the Whaley-Big Greenbriar Cemetery in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, looking down at the headstones, thinking about my relatives beneath me. I have followed my mother and grandfather on the trail that leads to the cemetery, pausing on the bridge to take pictures. They are talking now, and I wander off. Most of the headstones are small—little arch-shaped rocks placed in the ground with initials and two dates carved lightly on the face, like someone had engraved the stone with the tip of a knife. I want to find the largest headstone, the one that is prettier than the rest, the one that signifies that person had been the best of them, or at least to me. I find her in the far-left corner. Her headstone is white, with cherubs carved on either side. I can’t read her name, but I can make out enough of the years to understand that she was a baby when she died. Did she die from something we can cure now? My mother calls for me. As I’m walking back down the trail to the car, I stop at the ruins of an old school. I wonder: if my great-great-great grandparents weren’t forced out to build the park, if that school still stood, if my family never migrated down from the mountains, would I be the same person I am now?


Anita

“My dad was a pilot, so we moved around a lot.” Her voice over the phone is a steady stream of courage in my ears. I listen and hope the recorder is picking up her words. She lived in Gatlinburg for twenty years off and on but moved there permanently after her divorce in 2012. “I was trying to find out what life was like on my own.” She describes her life on top of that mountain as a fairytale. She uses words like beautiful, peaceful, empowering.


Mary Ann

“I’ve lived here all my life.” We’re sitting on her swimming pool deck facing the road, and cars often drive past. Sometimes, she lifts her hand and waves, and I don’t know if she recognizes the people or if she’s just being friendly. She used to ride her bicycle on these roads during a time before there was traffic, before there were tourists. I assume she is older than she looks, at least fifty or sixty. She says she used to garden and raise her chickens and swim in the river. “The happy things,” she calls them.


Scott

We sit in his camper at his small dining room table. If we stood side by side and stretched out our arms, we could probably reach the front and back together. The remains of his burned house sit just outside the door, and before I knocked, the harsh reverb of aluminum resounding through the trees below, I stood at the very edge of his charred and broken driveway that is cut into the side of his mountain, and I looked down at the crowns pointing up at me. What would it feel like, I wondered, to have everything I’ve known or loved burn up all around me?


Rikki

We sit on a couch in the middle of her studio apartment that overlooks the mountains. Reverent, I think. I would love to live in this place. She says it still feels like a hotel. Her hair is growing back in as tight black curls. I tell her how pretty it is, and she pulls on one and lets it bounce back up. She shaved it about a year ago because her lupus made her hair fall out in clumps, leaving her with little bald patches all over her scalp. When she talks, she seems much older than she is; I have to remind myself she is only twenty-three. She paints her fingernails a pretty dark grey as we speak, and one of her tattoos peeks out from underneath her sleeve. I can’t see all of it, but I know it says, “Fear no love.” I have a similar one painted across my ribs: “Fear no evil.” Sitting with her brings back memories of a time when I was twenty-one. She was the first I told about my cervical cancer. She was the one who talked to me about hardship and loss. What could I say to her that she doesn’t already know?

Knoxville Daily Sun

“November 23, 2016—The Chimney Tops 2 Fire reported in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, TN on Wednesday, November 23, 2016 at approximately 5:20 p.m. The wildfire began burning in a remote location (Chimney Tops) of the park in steep terrain with vertical cliffs and narrow rocky ridges making access to the wildfire area difficult for firefighting efforts.”

Me

I follow my father as we hike the two miles on West Prong Trail into primitive campsite eighteen. He’s carrying our tent in his hands, the rest of his gear packed in his backpack. I’m carrying our food—chicken and sandwiches. We get to the campsite and pick a spot next to the creek. He sets up the tent while I hunt wood for a fire. The land is greener than anything I had ever seen. I am thankful for the national park, for the ability to escape into the wilds of my mountains and live for a night the way my relatives might have before they built their cabins. 

Our neighbors, two young men, are looking for dry wood on the ground, but I found it all first. Maybe there is something in my blood, some ability passed down through generations that helps me in our mountains. In the morning, I stir the ashes, looking for hot coals. When I see some, glowing red from the night before, I throw dry leaves in and blow little puffs of air until the fire kicks back up. The young men aren’t awake yet. We eat s’mores for breakfast and leave before they rise.


Anita

I close my eyes as she speaks and try to picture her life. Coffee on the porch with her two dogs. Standing up and taking off on a walk through the woods behind her house. What would it be like to live so close to the wild?


Mary Ann

She cries often, and I am helpless watching. What could I possibly say to make it better?


Scott

He tells me about the free counseling the Helen Ross McNabb Center offered to people who suffered through the fires and says it was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Before, he couldn’t sleep without the help of alcohol. “I had it figured out that if I did six shots of whiskey and a half-hour Seinfeld episode and drank a beer, I could go to sleep.” Therapy is not a sign of weakness, he assures me. It’s a sign of strength, and I agree.


Rikki

When I ask her to describe her life before the fires, the first words she chooses are “oblivious” and “naïve.” I had never thought of her this way. She then laughs and says, “Indestructible. I’m Super Woman.” And this is more like the Rikki I know. A pillar of strength.


Me

I spend many nights at the bar across the street from work. My best friends and I open the doors and walk in, greeting the bartenders by name. We sit in a line on our stools in our black tank tops—our Buffalo Wild Wings jerseys lay crumpled in the back seats of our cars—and wait for the rest of the crew to show up. I go outside often and look up at the mountains in front of me, wishing I could be there instead.


Anita

“I’m sure you’ll hear this word again.” Fireballs. “The wind blew fireballs through the air, and when the wind died down, the fireballs would drop. Whatever they landed on would burst into flames because it was so dry.” So dry, people were losing their wells. She had dirt coming out of her faucet because her aquafer was so low. What would happen if all the water ran out, I ask? She says, “I don’t know.”


Mary Ann

There was only one way out. A fireman yelled for them to go and not stop. “The smoke was so thick, the winds were so high, the flames were shooting over the vehicles, and we couldn’t see the road.” She wondered, how could anybody who didn’t know the way make it off the mountains? I say, “I don’t know.”


Scott

He was in the kitchen making something to eat, and he turned to look out the window. “What do I do, I thought? What do I do? The whole sky was like a scarlet red I’ve never seen.” As he was looking for his fourth-grade daughter’s cats all over the house, his deck caught on fire. On his way down the mountain, he called his ex-wife and said, “If I don’t make it out of this, tell the kids I love them.”


Rikki

She tells me about little things she lost—her makeup, a card she received from her great aunt when she was nine, a necklace of her father’s ashes—and I consider what things of mine I would lose, what things of mine I would miss. She says that everyone keeps telling her that it’s her life that matters. She looks at me and says, “I’m not any less grateful that I’m alive, but I would like to have these things as well.” And, I think, I would too. Some things can’t be replaced.

Gatlinburg Daily Post

“November 29, 2016—The wildfires severely impacted our beautiful national park and the northern gateway communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Wears Valley last night. While information is still being gathered in the light of day, we know that tremendous destruction has occurred.

Hundreds of acres within the park have burned, including areas of Chimney Tops, Mount LeConte, Bullhead Trail, and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

As of this morning, Great Smoky Mountain National Park officials have closed all facilities in the park due to the extensive fire activity and downed trees. Great Smoky Mountain Area operations at our Sevier County, TN, visitor center locations, our headquarters near Sugarlands, and our mail order department are also closed at this time.

We are also saddened to report that many long-time friends of Great Smoky Mountain Area, including local businesses that support us and this park, have lost their homes and businesses. Our thoughts and prayers are with them.”

Me

I sit in my Chattanooga townhouse 153 miles away as my mountains burn. I watch, powerless, as people post pictures and videos of their homes and land, destroyed. I text my family and friends. What can I do, I ask? What do you need? They all reply, everything.


Anita

“In all of the ways. In all of the ways I was affected. But I made it out with my life and my pets and my blender.” She tells me she doesn’t want to say Divine Intervention, because that means God had her back but not her neighbor’s down the hill.


Mary Ann

Her son had just been named as The City of Gatlinburg’s Fire Marshal and Arson Investigator. “It was tormenting knowing he was up in the mountains fighting that ungodly fire.” She spent the next few days after the fires waiting to get a phone call that he was dead.


Scott

“Those little girls who burned, they went to school with my daughter.”


Rikki

She describes what she remembers as a horror movie that was the night of the fire. She says her house was burning while she was still inside, her eyes tearing from the smoke. The traffic was backed up in the road and trees were falling everywhere. She had to park her car and run in between the traffic, and as she was running down the road, a bear ran off her mountain and crossed in front of her. “I sounded like I was hyperventilating from the smoke in my lungs, and I had pocket-dialed my best friend in my purse. She was on the phone thinking she was listening to me die.”


Me

I walk down the Ramsey Cascades trail with my husband. We want to camp, but the creek is too high to cross. I lead him back down and take him to my cemetery. It’s been so long—over thirteen years—that I’m not sure I remember the way, but I find it. I pretend it’s because I have a magnetic pull to my great-great-great grandparents, and some place deep in my heart wishes it was true. We walk around and look at the headstones. I show him the baby’s grave with the cherubs. It doesn’t seem so large to me anymore.


Anita

She didn’t think her house was going to burn. She thought she could wait it out and drive back home in the morning. “When I first knew things were bad, I was talking to a sheriff’s deputy. I asked him how long he thought it would be before I could get back up to my house, and I told him where I lived. He said, ‘Ma’am, if you’ve got someplace to go, I suggest you get there.’”


Mary Ann

She received phone calls from ADT intermittently alerting her to different areas of her house catching fire. Every couple of minutes she answered the phone and listened: her garage, her kitchen, her living room, her bedroom.


Scott

“Everything is based around tourism here in Gatlinburg. So, at first, the city officials thought it would be in bad taste to build a memorial for those people that died.” I can’t imagine their deaths going unnoticed. Ignoring the lives of fourteen souls?


Rikki

I ask her if she went to see her house as soon as the mountains were opened to the public. She laughs and tells me the only thing she thinks about when she remembers that day is that she had just shaved her head because of her lupus, and a woman yelled to her through her car window and called her “sir.” Then she says that because has she lived here all her life, she knew a back road she could use when public safety had everything else blocked off. “It was Dawn of the Dead with no one around and all the destruction.”


Me

I gather everything I can think of and divide it into bags to give to my friends. Some stuff I don’t use anymore, some I do. Clothes, shampoo, soap. 


Anita

“I used to wonder what they do when the cameras go away. Those people you see on TV standing in front of the rubble of their homes after a fire.” But now she knows. They go to Walmart and buy a toothbrush. “There were seven of us lined up in our pajamas looking at the travel sizes.” They didn’t speak, just looked at each other.


Mary Ann

She told me her son said she didn’t understand. He was twenty-five feet away from a lady he couldn’t save. He told me he watched her burn, she said.


Scott

“My daughter blamed me for her cats dying. She blamed me for her friends dying. She didn’t talk to me for almost eight months.” As he talks about how difficult it is to be apart from her, I think about my dad and remember a time as a teenager when I didn’t talk to my father either. I want to reassure him in some way that maybe when she gets older, she won’t blame him anymore. She won’t see him as the villain she has made him out to be. But every situation is not the same. I say nothing.


Rikki

“You could tell where everybody’s bedrooms were because of the bedsprings.”


USA Today

“November 30, 2016—Though officials have confirmed seven deaths as of Wednesday, many are worried about additional fatalities because several people still are missing. Debris and downed power lines have limited authorities’ abilities to explore.

Among the missing are a 61-year-old Memphis couple, Jon and Janet Summers, who were separated from their three sons as they tried to escape the wildfire early Tuesday. The young men were found injured, transported to a Nashville hospital burn unit and are in critical but stable condition.

Portions of Sevier County, where Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge are located, received about a half inch of rain overnight Tuesday and are expected to get an additional inch or so Wednesday.

While the wet weather helps firefighters, the rain likely won’t penetrate the piles of dry leaves and brush that have accumulated in the forest through the years, according to Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller.”

Me

I am in the backseat taking videos with my phone. My father drives us around the back roads, showing us where the fires started. We trace our way from mountain to mountain, following the path the flames took. Even now, two years later, there are distinct lines of char and ash where the fire scorched its way through the trees. 

A respite from the tragedy, we drive through Cades Cove and stop to look at the cabins. We walk inside a few of them, trying to understand what life might have been like. It’s cold outside, and air flows through cracks in the floor. I close my eyes and try to imagine what it would have been like to suffer through the winters in those cabins, building fires in the large hearth that would warm the entire room. How would they have slept on those nights with ice puffing up from below, the flames licking warmth on their cheeks? Did they huddle together on the floor trying to trap the warmth between them, taking turns to wake and check if the embers hadn’t creeped too far from the fireplace, then stoke the flames to keep them going? If the fire had gotten out of control, what then? Where would they go?


Anita

It was the first time in her life where she really felt alone.


Mary Ann

“It was like driving through a warzone,” she says, describing her visit back to her house after the fires. She only went back once.


Scott

He tells me when he was finally allowed back up to see his house all he found were cement blocks, and I ask him what that was like. He doesn’t answer me at first, glancing instead out his solitary window to the mountains that surround us. 

“It was like a shot in the heart.”


Rikki

She laughs often and breaks her poignant stories with lighter comments. We stand at her window while she points to different ridges. “Sometimes I use binoculars to see what other people are doing.” She picks them up as if to demonstrate. She offers them to me, and I take them in my hands, lift them to my eyes. I look out her window with them, just to see.

The Daily Times

“December 7, 2016—Two juveniles are being held in the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center on charges of aggravated arson in connection with the Chimney Tops 2 fire that left 14 people dead, scores injured, and more than 1,700 structures destroyed or damaged.

The juveniles face aggravated arson charges in the fire in the Chimney Tops area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Nov. 23. Amid hurricane-force winds, the fire spread to the Gatlinburg area early last week, causing widespread damage.

‘Our promise is that we will do every effort to help bring closure to those who have lost so much,’ said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn.

The juveniles are from Tennessee, but not Sevier County, where the fires spread. Otherwise, officials said state law prevents releasing more information about them. The investigation is ongoing and more charges could come, and Dunn said it was possible the case could be transferred to an adult criminal court.”

Me

I am standing on the landing of the new Chimney Tops Trail. We can no longer go all the way to the top. I look out over the mountains to the scorched, black-tipped rocks. They look like real chimney tops now. Let’s go see the gate, my father suggests. We turn, walk down the trail, but stop—there’s a bear, digging in the ground, blocking our path. She pauses and looks at us. I take pictures. She’s so skinny. Too skinny for it to be August. She trails us up the path, no doubt smelling the banana and bagel in my husband’s pack. We hurry up a small side trail to hide and wait, hoping she doesn’t follow.


Anita

“My closest neighbor in proximity, his wife left and went to Kroger and couldn’t make it back up the mountain. He went to leave, and I saw his taillights going down the road.” She thought they made it out, but he got blocked and had to come back up. “He perished in that fire, and his wife had just gone to the store.”


Mary Ann

She thinks the fires divided the town. “Everybody wanted to blame somebody, and I have my own opinions.” She wants to know: how could it be that those boys got off without having to pay a price of any kind?


Scott

“I lost everything.” His three-bedroom house, his daughter’s pets, custody of his daughter. He didn’t have insurance, so he is unable to rebuild. Instead, he used the money from the Dolly Parton Fund to buy his small camper. 


Rikki

“I just didn’t want to be alone.”

Knoxville News Sentinel

“December 28, 2016—A month after the Gatlinburg wildfire on Nov. 28, a look at the numbers:

14: Deaths attributed to the fire, 12 directly from the fire, one by suspected heart attack, one who sustained a medical event and died in vehicular accident while fleeing fire

191: People treated at hospitals for fire-related injuries, illnesses

2,460: Number of structures damaged or destroyed in the fire

17,904: Number of acres burned. 17,140 in the Chimney Tops No. 2 fire, 764 in the Cobbly Nob fire

80: Number of firefighters from 40 states and the District of Columbia during the peak suppression activity”.

Me

I sit across each person and repeat, repeat, repeat myself. How long have you lived in Gatlinburg? What did your life look like before the fires? What does your life look like now?


Anita

“I will never be the same in the weirdest little ways.” Now, she keeps a pair of shoes by her bed, a sweatshirt hanging by her door, her purse in the same spot every night. Her car always has gas in it, her cell phone is always charged. 


Mary Ann

“We have simplified our lives.” She tells me that when people go through something like that, they learn to live without as much stuff. It’s relationships that matter.


Scott

“From what I heard they’re saying all the Gatlinburg fires were started by downed powerlines. That’s disheartening. To think that somehow the fires those kids started at the Chimney Tops four or five days before our houses burnt down didn’t have some type of correlation, to me that’s insanity.”


Rikki

“I thought I was going to die that night. There’s no other way to put it. I mean, how do you fight a forest fire? I was twenty-two. I had no idea I should leave my house. I didn’t think it was a possibility my house would burn down. That kind of thing has never happened in a place like this.”


USA Today

“June 30, 2017—Prosecutors have dropped charges against two Tennessee teenagers they labeled as responsible for the state’s deadliest wildfire in a century, an attorney confirmed Friday.

Defense attorney Gregory P. Isaacs said the state can’t prove that the horseplay of the boys, ages 17 and 15, that sparked a fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park caused the deadly wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tenn., five days later.

The boys were hiking on the Chimney Tops trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Nov. 23 and tossing lit matches onto the ground around the trail. Brush caught fire. The boys continued hiking down the trail. A fellow hiker with a Go-Pro happened to catch footage of them with smoke in the background.

Park officials decided to let the fire burn. Five days later, winds of nearly 90 mph whipped up, spreading deadly flames into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The emergency response was fretted with flaws, including the failure to warn residents and delayed evacuations.”

Me

I haven’t seen my mountains for months, but I’ll be back. I always go back.


Anita

“Before, it was take-your-breath-away beautiful, and it delighted my soul. But after the fires, it was so ugly.” It was not the fairytale she loved anymore, and she wasn’t sure if she was going to rebuild. “I couldn’t find any houses anywhere else I looked, and I thought that maybe, the reason I couldn’t find anything was because I had already found the perfect place.”


Mary Ann

“It’s one of those things in life that changes you, that makes you appreciate life more.” When she thinks back on the fires, she thinks about how God helped her get through. She says He helped her get down the mountain, He helped her when she could not see.


Scott

We talk about a bear that crawled in his Jeep. He shows me pictures of the paw prints in his seats. I tell him about the skinny bear I saw on the Chimney Tops Trail and the bear looking for food in my mom’s backyard over an hour away by car. He says their food supply since the fires is scarce. I ask him if he thinks the park should plant the trees and bushes that were lost. He says they don’t have the budget for that kind of thing. How much more damage can humans cause before the world crumbles around us?


Rikki

She went to Helen Ross McNabb for therapy, and while she was sitting in the waiting room, the staff yelled back and forth to argue if they were still taking fire victims because it had been six months since the fires. Even if it had been six months, even if it had been five years, you still have a right to talk about it, I tell her. She says she feels like a ball of emotions, with her compounding anxiety, anger, and depression. “My boyfriend tries to get me to go talk to somebody, but it sucks, you know. Because I tried to go talk to somebody, but I just ended up with that terrible experience.” I want to reach for her, to take her hand and say, “You can talk to me.” But I don’t because the recorder is still on. When I leave, though, I hug her and tell her she can call me anytime, already knowing she won’t. I will text her soon, I think. But until then, I hope I have done enough.

WBIR-TV

“November 28, 2017—On the one year anniversary of the Gatlinburg and Sevier County wildfires, a permanent memorial for the victims and first responders was announced Tuesday at the ‘Day of Remembrance’ ceremony.

The bridge crosses the river near the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge city line, and a trail will go from downtown to Herbert Holt Park.

Officials said they hope to begin construction in the next three to four months, and city leaders say the end result will honor the lives lost for generations to come.

City and county officials also took time at the memorial service to remember the lives lost in the fires and honor the first responders and volunteers for their service in the days and months that followed.

Hundreds of people filled the gym at Rocky Top Sports World for the service. It’s a place that only one year ago was filled with more than 2,000 people in need of shelter after evacuating from the fires.

The service included a moment of silence for each of the 14 lives lost in the fires, remembering a tragic part of the past in a city forever changed one November night one year ago.

Wilson said, ‘There will always be that one thing that we were all a part of that we wish never happened, but I can say this, I believe the city to me looks more beautiful today than it ever has.’”


Me

Five years later and the Chimney Tops still bear the marks of that day. The rocks remain scorched and frail, the surrounding trees remain dead. I can still follow the fire’s path by the charred trees through the mountains, and there are still lots that remain empty, now barren concrete slabs where a home used to stand. But it is not all devastation. There is new vegetation where ash used to be. Chalets, churches, and restaurants are restored, and tourists once again fill the streets. It is almost as if the fires never happened, if you don’t look too closely. But for those of us who bore witness and have been unable to rebuild, it will forever live in our memory. ■

Jacquelyn Scott has an MFA from The University of Tennessee. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Laurel Review, The Blue Mountain Review, December Mag, and elsewhere. Find her on a hiking trail or on Twitter @JacquelynLScott.

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