SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – It’s been 6 years since wildfires in Great Smoky Mountains National Park descended the mountains to consume parts of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Wears Valley in Sevier County. For those who were there, it seems like yesterday.
“Strange how the smell of a campfire in the distance can bring it all back…” begins an eloquent message shared Monday on social media from the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office. Six years to the day, fires erupted in the county.
A timeline of the wildfire begins 5 days earlier, with a column of smoke spotted by park rangers above Chimney Tops.
Before the end, the fires claimed the lives of 14 people: Reverend Dr. Ed Taylor, John Tegler, Marilyn Tegler, Alice Hagler, Robert “Bobby” Alan Hejny, Constance Reed, Chloe Reed, Lily Reed, Elaine Brown, Pamela Johnson , Bradley Phillips. Jon Summers, Janet Summers and May Vance.
Two unnamed minors were initially charged with aggravated arson – charges which were later dropped due to a lack of evidence.
Intense videos filled with social media platforms. The fire burns the mountains. People have to go down to escape. The two met on winding mountain roads and it was filmed. In 2016, WATE 6 spoke with Lt. Steve Coker of the Sevierville Fire Department, who walked through the flames. The video speaks for itself. Coker is now battalion commander.
Phone call recordings made by the US Forestry Service paint a clear picture of the wind and flames.
Dozens of guests trapped by the flames inside a Gatlinburg hotel described what they were going through over the phone. Logan Baker and his family saw burning cabins explode and said firefighters were breaking windows on the top floor of the hotel to let the smoke escape.
The Tennessee Department of Security and Homeland Security shared interviews with state troopers on their social media platform on Monday. Officers describe conditions amid rescues in 2016.
It was a difficult time that proved hard to forget.
The Sevier County Sheriff’s Office shared these photos which they say were taken in downtown Sevierville at 3:16 p.m. on November 28, 2016.
“As we reflect on this terrible day and continue to mourn the losses, may we try to shift some of our focus to the blessings,” the post from the Sheriff’s Office continues. “Grateful that the winds have died down today and grateful for the recent rains.”
Less rain in October than normal resulted in drought conditions in eastern Tennessee. Similar – but not as severe – conditions as 2016. Today, on the 6th anniversary of the wildfires, a severe wind warning was issued for the Smokies. The weather bringing people closer to their memories of 2016.
On Monday, the National Association of State Fire Marshals wrote about the falling weather in a post on its social media page recalling the wildfires.
“Winds reaching 87 mph toppled trees, which in turn started fires when they hit power lines. It also caused pump stations to lose power, quickly drying out hydrants,” wrote the association.
Twenty-one days later, the fires were extinguished.
In the years following the defeat of the flames, a number of changes can be observed.
The park is healing. The National Park Service has shared before and after photos showing some locations. See those here. You can also compare what the mountains looked like in 2020.
People recovered, in large part, with the help of Dolly Parton’s “My People Fund.” Parton raised $9 million for families affected by the wildfires and the donations kept coming. The fund has provided over 900 Sevier County families whose homes were destroyed with up to $10,000 over 6 months. Sevier County residents told WATE 6 they are “forever grateful” to Parton.
Other less obvious changes relate to how the National Park Service, land management agencies, state and local governments have worked together on actions to prevent a similar event in the future, such as updating level of radio communications and additional training measures.
A year after the fires, WATE 6 On Your Side’s Don Dare sat down at the Anna Porter Library in Gatlinburg with five public servants who became the face of the 2016 wildfires to talk about the lessons they learned, as well than how the community continues to move forward. Watch this interview.
Then, in 2020, a former fire chief said the park service’s lack of warning was the most critical failure of the 2016 wildfires.
Meanwhile, lawsuits with charges over decisions to let the fire burn overnight amid drought and high winds, a failure of the park service to warn residents of danger, a lack of fire watch – continue to work their way through the court system.
This year, lawsuits from people who lost family members, homes and businesses were thrown out by a federal judge, while other lawsuits from insurance companies were mostly cleared. to continue. The dividing line is in the way a form was filled out when the lawsuit was filed. An appeal was filed in the case, but the decision led plaintiff Michael Reed to sue his attorney for malpractice.
In the meantime, tourists have returned tenfold over the past 6 years, fueled by the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, the park saw the highest number of recreational visits since the park began counting in 1979. This has been accompanied by increased tax revenue for businesses, the city and the county. The recovery continues.
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