Gatlinburg after the November 2016 fire. Arson was suspected from the beginning, though a drought and a burn ban had been in place and wildfires were anticipated. Last I heard, the two teenagers accused of starting the fire were hanging out at Chimney Tops, a popular trail in the National Park and rolled burning tires down the mountain, catching everything on fire as it went. Fourteen people died and the property losses must be astronomical.
On my trip this month, the fires were out and the park was open. The downtown wasn’t harmed, but random buildings on the outskirts were burned to the foundation. Locals described the fire burning on the hillsides and branching down into small low pressure areas, hitting one house and skipping the one next door like a tornado might. The rental cabins and vacation homes were devastated; November I think is the off-season for this region, or this would have been an even greater tragedy.
It’s hard to say who owned most of the homes there, but I think it was a mix of investment groups and independent owners from the area and outside of it. The roads survived, and handwritten “Sell Property Fast” signs are pinned to the trees with the number to call. Many houses are flattened, but random metal bits are left: bear boxes for trash cans, frames of cars, portable grills. Construction vehicles barreled up the windy roads and were parked across some of the roads as barricades.
The town has carried on with impressive reserve. A local woman working at a downtown restaurant said she cried for two weeks, but she was back at work and taking orders. The tourist experience was undiminished, despite everything. The aquarium almost didn’t make it, but the fire reached just to it and stopped. Dollyworld is open. All the silly touristy stuff is open. The city is still there and it’s doing what it needs to do.
Much respect, Gatlinburg. Much respect, Pigeon Forge.