SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — It’s been 6 years since wildfires in the 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.
“It is strange how the smell of a campfire off in the distance can bring it all back…” begins an eloquent post shared Monday on the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office social media. Six years to the day the fires exploded in the county.
A timeline of the wildfire begins 5 days earlier, with a smoke column spotted by park rangers above Chimney Tops.
Before it was over, the fires claimed the lives of 14 people: Rev. 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 juveniles were originally charged with aggravated arson — charges that were later dropped due to a lack of evidence.
Intense video filled social media platforms. Fire burns up mountains. People need to go down to get away. The two met on curvy mountain roads and it was caught on video. In 2016, WATE 6 spoke with Sevierville Fire Department Lt. Steve Coker, who drove through flames. The video speaks for itself. Coker is now a Battalion Chief.
Recordings of phone calls made by US Forestry Service paint a clear picture of wind and flames.
Dozens of guests trapped by flames inside a Gatlinburg hotel described by phone what they were experiencing. Logan Baker and his family watched cabins on fire explode and said firefighters were breaking windows on the top floor of the hotel to let the smoke escape.
Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security shared interviews with state troopers on their social media platform Monday. The officers describe conditions amid rescues in 2016.
It was a difficult time that has proven difficult to forget.
The Sevier County Sheriff’s Office shared these photos they said were taken in downtown Sevierville at 3:16 p.m. on November 28, 2016.
“As we reflect on that terrible day and as we continue to mourn the losses, may we try to shift some of our focus on blessings,” the sheriff’s office post continues. “Thankful that the winds have calmed today and thankful for the recent rains.”
Less October rain than normal has led to drought conditions across East Tennessee. Similar — but not as severe — as conditions in 2016. Now, on the 6th anniversary of the wildfires, a high wind warning has been issued for the Smokies. The weather conditions taking people closer to their memories of 2016.
On Monday, the National Association of State Fire Marshals wrote about the weather that fall in a post on its social media page recalling the wildfires.
“Winds as high as 87 mph knocked down trees, which in turned started fires when they hit power lines. This also caused pumping stations to lose power, quickly drying up hydrants,” the association wrote.
Twenty-one days later, the fires were out.
In the years since the flames were defeated, a number of changes can be seen.
The park is healing. The National Park Service shared photos showing before and after of certain locations. See those here. You can also compare how the mountains looked in 2020.
People have recovered, in great part, with the help of Dolly Parton’s “My People Fund.” Parton raised $9 million for families impacted by the wildfires and donations kept coming. The fund provided more than 900 Sevier County families whose homes were destroyed up to $10,000 over 6 months. Sevier County residents told WATE 6 they are ‘forever grateful’ to Parton.
Other less obvious changes are 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 upgrading 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 officials who became the face of the wildfires in 2016 to talk about lessons they learned, as well as how the community continues to move forward. Watch that interview.
Then, in 2020, a former fire chief said lack of notice from the park service was the most critical failure in the 2016 wildfires.
Meanwhile, lawsuits with accusations about decisions to leave the fire burning overnight amid drought and high winds, about a failure of the park service to warn residents of the danger, about a failure to monitor the fire – continue to wind their way through the judicial system.
This year, lawsuits filed by people who lost family members, homes and businesses were dismissed by a federal judge while other suits filed by insurance companies were mostly allowed to continue. The dividing line is in how a form was filled out when the lawsuits were filed. An appeal has been filed in the case, but the decision led plaintiff Michael Reed to sue his attorney’s for legal malpractice.
In the meantime, tourists have returned tenfold in the past 6 years, fueled by the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, the park saw the highest number of recreational visits since the park started keeping count in 1979. With that came increased tax revenue for businesses, the city and the county. The recovery continues.