Smoky Mountain Wildfire Response

Only the occasional cleanup vehicle passing disturbed the unprecedented silence of downtown Gatlinburg. The storefronts were dark, and no music flowed from the Ole Smoky Mountain Moonshine Holler. The once crowded and lively strip displayed its charred borders to the empty street.

The fire was contained on the edge of the Reagan Mall in downtown Gatlinburg. The remains of a putt-putt course can be seen from the street.

The fires that spread through 17,006 acres of the Smoky Mountains left 14 people dead and 145 injured since its start at Chimney Tops on November 28. It spread to Gatlinburg damaging over 1,600 structures and forcing 14,000 people to evacuate. Despite the devastation, volunteers from all over responded to the tragedy with determination.

As word of the fires spread, donations for those in need began flooding in. The fire department soon ran out of space to store received items, and a distribution center at Boyds Bear/ American Bandstand building was established.

“We had this location available and within a couple of hours we developed a plan and said ‘okay, start bringing it in,’” said Jessica Nickels, a lead volunteer at Boyds Bear.

The facility was soon filled to capacity with food, toiletry, pet and baby supplies just in time to aid those who had already been affected by the fire. Donations were not the only thing to arrive though.

Volunteers have been arriving from all over to help at varying capacities since the initial request. At the Boyds Bear center, children flatten boxes for recycling as college volunteers carry supplies to the vehicles of the elderly. A line files out the door of those in need, but morale is not low.

“It’s just been amazing to see the amount of stuff that has rolled in, and it’s not just from this area. I’ve been taking phone calls from people several hours away. I just talked to a guy, and he’s here from Cincinnati and he’s here just to volunteer… We’ve had people from Alabama who have driven up just for the day,” said Nickels.

Boyds Bear is not the only location aiding in the tragedy. The Dolly Parton Foundation will be donating $1,000 a month to those displaced by the fire.

The American Red Cross was able to open three shelters as the first people were evacuated. Locations in Pigeon Forge are creating material drives and many others are contributing in their own ways.

“You never really think about the need until something of this magnitude happens,” said Sue Carr, marketing director at Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism.

According to the Daily Beacon, 58% of the fires are currently being contained. Officials of Sevier County worked in coalition with the Tennessee State Forestry Department to establish an interactive map that displayed all of the buildings that were affected by the wildfires.

(Interactive mapped developed using ESRI, Sevier County and Tennessee Forestry to allow people to see structural damage inflicted by the fire online)

“[The support] has given them hope. I think it’s made them realize we will get through this. We will rebuild. It’s going to be OK, and there’s people out there who care,” said Nickels.

The aid has continued through the rain that helped firefighters contain what was left of the fires. Although east Tennessee is not accustomed to natural disasters occurring on such a grand scale, it is apparent that the Gatlinburg area will continue to be taken care of by those who have found a home in it.