East Tennessee's 2016 wildfires: a year of devastation, resolve and selflessness

Dec. 28, 2016: In 2016 the state of Tennessee fought some of its harshest wildfires in recent history.

In 2016, East Tennessee’s two wildfire seasons were marked with devastating loss -- as well as resolve and selfless donations.

The landscape for the year’s wildfires began in the spring. An unseasonably dry March coupled with high winds led to several brush fires early on.

By early April, as many as 119 fires had ignited across East Tennessee, including one of the largest in the Cherokee National Forest in Cocke County. The wildfires there burned more than 2,400 acres.

MORE: Crews make progress in fight against Cocke County wildfire 

"Burnt trees and grass and ashes have fallen ... it just looks horrible," one driver told WBIR 10News.

It took firefighters days to contain those flames, but no lives were lost. Toward the end of the spring wildfire season, wildlife biologists remained optimistic for the regeneration those fires would bring.

"It creates a young forest, which provides a lot of habitat for songbirds, turkey and deer," said wildlife technician Andy Balch.

Several months of relative calm followed before fire danger picked back up in autumn. By the time fall wildfire season had officially begun, the drought had hit record levels. In mid-October, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry said the region was experiencing its driest conditions since 2000.

By mid-to-late October, 800 wildfires had burned across the state, and officials said many were ignited by arson.

In November, fires across East Tennessee began to send a thick haze into Knoxville -- an area trapped by mountains on either side.

READ MORE: Area wildfires leave haze lingering over Knoxville

"You just feel like you're gasping for air, you wake up in the night, not slept well, tired next day, it affects your whole life,” said Knoxville resident Chris Roberts.

"Actually, I didn't go to church yesterday because of the breathing [problems] and everything,” said Teresa Green, an inn manager in Campbell County.

With more than 90 active wildfires burning across Tennessee at the time, hundreds of firefighters from California, Washington and Idaho touched down to help. It was a rare move, but a crucial one.

"Personally, I've never worked a mobilization team here where we're bringing Western crews to us. It's always the opposite of that,” said Jason McHan from the U.S. Forest Service in Knoxville.

Some homeowners, like those living in two homes on the top of Neddy Mountain, were asked to evacuate in some areas, but the first mass evacuation came in Walland, where a fire came as close as 300 yards to  Walland Elementary School.

The wildfire forced officials to evacuate 320 kids from the school. 

"(My daughter) was terrified because she thought the school was on fire,” said Walland Elementary parent Brandy Keller.

Thankfully, it wasn't. No buildings were damaged during the fire.

But more than one week later, just as fire officials came closer to putting out the wildfire in Walland completely, a windstorm brought the most devastating fires in the last century to Sevier County.

On Nov. 27, a small fire in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park grew overnight to 500 acres.
On the night of Nov. 28, the fire spread into the city of Gatlinburg and areas of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. For many, the only way out was through the flames.



In total, 14 people were killed and 2400 buildings were damaged or destroyed. As many 14,000 people were forced to evacuate.

Two juveniles accused of starting the fires have been charged with aggravated arson.

MORE: Juveniles arrest in Sevier County fires awaiting first court appearance

"All options available to the state when dealing with juveniles are on the table,” said Sevier County District Attorney James Dunn.

That includes possible prosecution as adults.

Hundreds are still without homes or work, but donations are pouring in from across the country -- Including Dolly Parton's My People Fund, which gives a $1,000 check to eligible victims every month for six months.

As Gatlinburg reopens and signs of normalcy return, many are holding onto faith and a “Mountain Tough” resolve to rebuild.

© 2017 WBIR.COM


JOIN THE CONVERSATION

To find out more about Facebook commenting please read the
Conversation Guidelines and FAQs

Leave a Comment