It was two years ago this month that wildfires ripped through parts of the Smokies and Sevier County. There are signs of recovery nearly everywhere you look, but there are scars that will never heal.
When the smoke cleared, we learned this would be one of the worst disasters in state history. Fourteen people were killed, more than 2,400 structures were destroyed and more than 17,000 acres burned.
Much of the land has reclaimed itself and parts of the park that haven’t been open in two years are just reopening.
There have also been a lot of big businesses popping up and investing in Gatlinburg since the fires.
Businesses move in after the fires
“We actually closed on our financing November two years ago, two weeks before the fires hit Gatlinburg,” said Bob Bentz, Anakeesta marketing partner.
Anakeesta’s mountaintop attraction is right in the middle of where the 2016 fires hit.
“We came to the top of the mountain and the forest that we all loved was burned,” Bentz said.
They pushed forward, opening nearly a year later and continuing to expand.
“We have eight small buildings. They include the Clifftop Restaurant which just opened this past June,” Bentz said.
The fires forced them to take down more trees than anticipated, opening up vast views of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, while also preserving this piece of Gatlinburg’s past and replenishing part of what had to go.
“We came back in and we planted about 2,000 seedlings on the southern side of the mountain to reforest that area,” said Bentz.
The fires were a potentially large setback for them, but by pushing forward, Bentz says visitation is up.
They’re not alone. Just down the mountain from Anakeesta is the new Margaritaville Resort and Spa.
“We opened June 28, and it’s been a great ride since. We’ve been incredibly busy since we opened,” said general manager Michael Russell.
Both Margaritaville and Anakeesta are pushing development toward the north end of town, closer to the Spur, injecting life into an area that had seen less development in the past.
Right next door is Blake Shelton’s restaurant Ole Red, anticipated to open in the spring, and it’s not just these large businesses finding new homes here. Since December 2016, 336 new business licenses have been issued in Gatlinburg, 135 of those in the last year.
Bill Hays opened Gatlinburg Wine Cellar about a year ago.
“I think the sky is the limit as far as this is concerned right here,” said Hays.
On any given day, business is good for them too.
“I think the people have rebounded since the fires,” said Hays. “You cannot beat the 11 million visitors that we get through this particular area.”
It’s a sure sign this tourist destination is continuing to draw people to the mountains.
“It’s going to come back very strong and show the community what Gatlinburg was in all its grandeur so it’s going to be fantastic,” said Russell.
Remembering the victims
This time last year, there was a special ceremony to honor the victims and first responders. That same night, plans were unveiled for a memorial to be built in Gatlinburg, but the project has faced some delays.
There is another quiet place in downtown Gatlinburg where people can gather to remember that deadly night. The memorial was not city or county funded, but organizers felt it was important to do it on their own.
A part of the Anakeesta attraction, called the Memorial Forest Walk, has been set aside to remember the day of the deadly fires.
A vast majority of the 70 acres that Anakeesta occupies was swallowed up by the flames. Evidence of that has been preserved and there’s a sense of a new beginning springing up.
“It’s been less than two years, almost two years, since the fires and you know you got a lot of the seedlings that are 10 feet tall already in only two years,” said Bentz.
Signs around this area of the park remind visitors what took place here and the lives affected.
“I think everyone that comes, it’s very fresh in their memory, and they want to know what happened and how it impacted and how we survived it and how we moved on,” said Bentz.
The city of Gatlinburg is also working to preserve those memories. They announced a permanent memorial last November to be placed on the north end of town and approved funding in March.
The memorials honor all that was lost and show the strength of moving forward.
“Not only does it show the stories of individuals and how it impacted them, but we’ve also preserved an area of the forest and we’re showing how the trees are coming back,” Bentz said. “You can see the trees that were burned. You can touch the trees that were burned by the fire. You can also see the new growth that’s coming back from the forest.”
Dolly Parton remembers the wildfires
There were so many stories of neighbors helping neighbors, people donating time, and resources and money sent to help. One of the biggest efforts was started by East Tennessee’s own Dolly Parton and the Dolly Parton Foundation.
Parton says she remembers exactly where she was when she heard about the fires tearing through East Tennessee.
“It scared me to death. I was on the road and sitting there, and Miley Cyrus called and said, ‘Dolly, you know your home is burning.’ And I didn’t know what she was talking about. And she was serious. The Smoky Mountains were on fire,” said Parton.
Within 48 hours of the fires, the My People Fund was started, offering hope and support to those who lost their homes. The fund was a pledge to donate $1,000 a month for six months to every family who lost their primary home in Sevier County.
Donations poured in through Parton’s Smoky Mountains Rise telethon on December 13. There was so much extra money that Parton surprised families with a final check for $5,000 rather than the $1,000 she promised.
“Well, I say it’s the least I can do. These are my people. This is my home, and I’m in a position to help and I should help. And I’m thrilled to death that it’s worked out to where I can help,” said Parton.
Now, nearly two years after the wildfires, Parton says she sees real progress and real healing in East Tennessee.
“I think we have really made a major comeback and I think I got a lot of credit for the work a lot of other people did. I was happy to spearhead that thing, and was happy to do my part, and should have done it. but there were so many giving hearts that really helped with that,” she said.
Even after the last check was handed out through the My People Fund, Parton’s foundation continued to give back by teaming up with the Mountain Tough recovery team and by establishing and supporting the Wildfire Scholarship Fund.
Pete and Joy Jucker are starting to see real progress on their Chalet Village home after a slow start to rebuilding.
“Pretty happy about moving forward but a little disappointed we are not in by Thanksgiving. But the place is looking great and coming together!” said Pete Jucker.
The Juckers estimate about one-third of the homes in Chalet Village are being rebuilt right now, but they just didn’t want to rebuild they wanted to rebuild Firewise. That means using more fire-resistant materials like concrete, adding gutter guards to prevent leaf build up and taking measures to make sure debris cannot accumulate around their property.
“An ember will land on your deck or house. It is not going to catch your cabin on fire. It’s the leaves first, then the leaves catch your house,” said Pete Jucker.
The Juckers also installed a sprinkler system, but that is where a three-month delay came into play. Damage to a nearby water tower was weakening the required water pressure for the system.
“The sprinkler system was on hold because the water company needed to redo the water above us here,” Pete Jucker said.
Pete Jucker became the chairperson for the Chalet Village Firewise campaign. This community was certified in August, which means an ongoing commitment to educating people and helping others rebuild responsibly.
Joy Jucker says you can really feel the positive change around town.
“I think it is very, very positive. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about where Gatlinburg is going and where the Smokies is going. It’s just incredible after two years,” she said.
At the same time, the Juckers say this two-year mark is still very difficult. They know people are still hurting here and they say the devastation on the West Coast is even more heartbreaking to watch.
“Here it was just one day of wildfires. They have been going through this for weeks. Every day I tear up watching the news. The news is very tough right now,” said Pete Jucker.
The couple is committed to helping in any way they can. For more Firewise information or to get help for your own property, you can email Pete Jucker at CVOCFirewise@gmail.com.