November 28th marks five years since the Chimney Tops 2 fire spread out of control into populated areas in Sevier County, devastating portions the area in 2016 and claiming 14 lives.
There were 1,032 structures destroyed or substantially damaged in that fire. But after the smoke had cleared, East Tennesseans worked together to quickly rebuild.
In the five years since, some scars from the fire can still be seen in the mountains, but they continue to heal. From the initial recovery to present day, it's been through the hard work and large hearts of countless people -- both named and unnamed -- that the area has been able to rebuild and moved forward since those harrowing days.
The year 2017 began with hardship for many as they worked to recover what they could from the fires. As the year went on, the initial recovery began to hit its stride.
►May 2017: Gatlinburg Sky Lift reopens
Almost six months after it was damaged by fire, the rebuilt Gatlinburg Sky Lift reopened just before the Memorial Day weekend. Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner and Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters rode the celebratory "first chair" up the lift.
For years, Gatlinburg had flood warning sirens downtown, but the devices were destroyed in the 2016 fires. Several new warning sirens were installed across the area, with the system designed to have redundant backups in case one system fails, using computer, hardwired and radio-based methods to activate sirens.
301 days after burning to the ground in the November 2016 Wildfires, the Alamo Steakhouse in Gatlinburg rebuilt. At the time, 95 percent of the original staff from before the fire went back to work serving once again.
An after-action report issued by the National Park Service found "preparedness and planning weaknesses" hindered the response by Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials to the devastating Chimney Tops 2 fire in November 2016, but there was no evidence of negligence on the park's behalf.
►Oct. 2017: Chimney Tops trail reopens to the public
For more than 10 months, bright orange barriers had blocked the trail head to one of the most popular hikes inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In October 2017, the Chimney Tops trail was once again open to the public. The trail work cost roughly $90,000, which came from a combination of federal funds and Friends of the Smokies.
One of the powerful stories from the 2016 Sevier County wildfire came from a family trapped at the Park Vista hotel in Gatlinburg. As smoke overwhelmed the building, Christa Fordan feared death and wrote what she believed were her final words. The family’s recovery transitioned from a list of final words to a new list of things they would like to do with their lives.
In Gatlinburg, 2017 will be marked by strength, resiliency and healing after the wildfires. It was a year the community was thankful to put behind them.
"Material things just don't mean that much. It's the people who matter,” said Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner. “Time heals but my gosh, it's still just hard to believe it happened when you look back.”
In 2018, recovery efforts rapidly progressed -- and tourists once again began heading to the mountains in record numbers. By the end of the year, those who had led the initial recovery efforts would announce their mission was complete.
In the days after the fire, Dolly Parton and the Dollywood Foundation established the My People Fund to help wildfire victims, promising a $1000 a month for six months to families who lost their homes. In the final month, she gave each family a $5000 check.
The researchers found that the cash donations were by far the most helpful for victims, when compared to donations of food, clothing, or other goods.
Nearly a year and a half since wildfires destroyed their church, Roaring Fork Baptist in Gatlinburg held its first service under a new roof. Music poured out of the new church that Sunday morning for the first time since being rebuilt. Nearly 200 people, all dressed brightly and singing loudly, were thankful for the work and volunteers that brought them into their new, permanent sanctuary.
Sevier County's tourism bounced back tremendously in 2018 and people returned to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in record numbers.
"They thought the park burned down. It was very hard. It took a long time for the people to realize the park was open," Jan Caughron, a park volunteer, said.
On the night of the fire in 2016, executive director Bill May fled the Arrowmont School and returned to nearly a quarter of the campus burned. In late 2018, gone were the many of the construction crews and burn marks, replaced two years later by buildings and homes stronger than before.
New businesses steadily opened in Gatlinburg two years after the 2016 wildfire disaster.
"The future's bright for Gatlinburg," Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mark Adams said. "But not only Gatlinburg--but Sevier County, and tourism. So Sevier County is the number three county in the state of Tennessee for providing tax dollars back to the capitol. So we're excited about that."
An organization founded to help Sevier County residents recover after the 2016 wildfires said it had completed its mission in December 2018.The recovery team assisted people on a case by case basis, helping out with things like cleanup, home rebuilding and more.
The Mountain Tough Recovery Team helped hundreds of people who applied for assistance. On September 2018, the group said out of the 600 people who registered, 70 percent met the criteria and received some type of help or have been identified as 'recovered.'
2019 saw businesses working to expand once again, with several noteworthy additions.
Roughly two years after repairing and reopening its lifts, SkyLift Park made progress on renovations and opened a new record-breaking attraction that captured attention from around the world: The SkyBridge. The SkyBridge measures 680 feet in length, making it the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America.
The FBI Knoxville branch honored Sevier County's most beloved daughter for her and the Dollywood Foundation's recent work to help those devastated by the 2016 wildfires. The FBI awarded the Dollywood Foundation with the 2018 Director's Community Leadership Award.
"May y'all continue to have the faith, the strength and the vision to make your dreams come true," Dolly said.
Nearly three years after the Gatlinburg wildfires, University of Tennessee librarians began work on a special project to archive that history. It's expected to be completed sometime in 2022. The purpose is to speak with people who were impacted by the fire and preserve their experiences for the future. From survivors, first responders, UT researchers and park employees, the project is expecting to document what the fire meant through hundreds of on camera interviews.
The 2016 wildfires drew the interest of researchers looking to learn about the impacts to the mountains. UT biologist Brandon Matheny and fellow UT biologist Karen Hughes are part of a team of researchers who studied how fire-loving fungi helped reconstruct the Smokies. They teamed up with the University of Illinois to forge new paths into how forests grow back successfully.
Buckberry Lodge, situated on top of a mountain in Gatlinburg with stunning views of Mount LeConte, was almost a total loss after the fires. It was made up of 46 suites in four buildings, along with a lodge building that held a restaurant. The family managed to reopen for business with one building in the year after the fire. In 2019, they said they hoped to do more to eventually expand the resort again.
The 2019 Thanksgiving season held a lot of meaning for the Gatlinburg Church of Christ. It was their first Thanksgiving service in the new building, almost exactly three years after they lost their original building that dated back to 1964. It took a lot of time, effort and donations from people across the globe to build a new church.
Their new mountain home was called "New Bear" -- but the significance only stands out if you know what happened to the old one. The Gatlinburg wildfire destroyed Pete and Joy Jucker's Chalet Village house in 2016. Three years later, the Juckers not only had a place to live, it was a model of Firewise development.
Three years after the Gatlinburg Wildfire, the community continued to recover in a big way. There were 1,032 structures destroyed or substantially damaged in that fire. Now, hundreds have been rebuilt, and the City of Gatlinburg named 30 things it's doing to protect the community if disaster ever strikes again, such as upgrading emergency alert equipment and improving communication.
The 2020 pandemic would put a hold on many projects that had been in the works, at least temporarily as Sevier County dealt with depressed tourism.
A federal survey into the Chimney Tops 2 fire revealed most people were unprepared and largely unaware of danger that was growing up to and during the night of November 28, 2016. Its findings were eye-opening: The majority had been largely unaware of wildfire risks after days and weeks of smoke in the air, had never been through an evacuation before, and only a small percentage said they were warned or received information the fire was present through official sources or an evacuation notice.
Survivors and victims of the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfire disaster could proceed with negligence lawsuits seeking damages from the federal government following a 2020 ruling from a federal judge. The government sought to dismiss several lawsuits, including one involving a Gatlinburg man who lost his wife and two daughters in the Nov. 28, 2016, disaster.
The judge found that the National Park Service failed to follow mandatory steps in its own fire management plan in notifying its neighbors about the fire. The Park Service said it put out numerous notices about the fire over the long Thanksgiving weekend, but the judge ruled the government failed to adequately prove its case.
In 2021, tourists would once again flock to the area, and nature continued to heal the scars left behind from the fires. While housing issues remained present, people reflected on just how the area has come five years later.
More than four years after wildfires swept through Sevier County and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the forest continues to recover and grow.
A park scientist has been tracking the area's recovery using repeat photography by returning to the same location and capturing the same photo year after year, according to the national park.
The 2016 wildfires destroyed some 2,000 structures. Some chose not to rebuild, others converted their properties into lucrative rental developments. Joel Poole was one of the unlucky many, saying rebuilding would have cost double the insurance payout. After initially living in a trailer and then another cabin, he and his family finally moved into a condo near Downtown Gatlinburg this spring.
Five years after the fires, construction on a memorial honoring the victims and survivors of the 2016 Sevier County wildfires has yet to begin — more than two years after it was initially scheduled to be completed. A city of Gatlinburg spokesperson said bureaucratic review as part of a state grant process is responsible for the delay and construction is now not expected to start until spring 2022.
At a glance, visitors might miss the scars left behind by the 2016 Sevier County wildfires. New growth and rebuilt structures fill many of the areas that were affected.
"We knew that if we stayed strong and worked together as a team, that things were going to ultimately be be for the better," said Marcus Watson, marketing director for the SkyLift Park. "We went through some hard times and persevered... we're seeing record numbers."
Marci Claude, the public relations manager for the Gatlinburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that spirit of resilience is what Mayor Mike Werner meant went he said they would be "mountain strong."
An ongoing lawsuit against the National Park Service over its handling of the 2016 Gatlinburg Wildfire is on hold as a federal judge considers a motion to dismiss the suit. Nearly five years after the devastating fires, in which 14 people died, there is still no resolution in the case. Judge Ronnie Greer had set a trial date in 2023.
"Sometimes the wheels of justice turn very slowly and there’s always the possibility of appeal," attorney Sid Gilreath, who initially filed the lawsuit, said. "We're hoping it'll get started up again soon."
From his new condo on Gatlinburg's Ski Mountain, Bob Ward still remembers how close he came to the flames of the 2016 Sevier County Wildfires. The fire interfered with cell service and internet services. No text alerts were ever sent. The directions that helped Ward get off the mountain came from neighbors who were trying to do the same thing.
5 years after the fires, Sevier County's Emergency Management Director said communication methods have improved. Sevier County and Gatlinburg now have access to send phone alerts, text messages and calls. Mass notification can be sent via an AM radio station and with new warning sirens in the mountains around downtown.
t's been five years since Pete Jucker and his wife, Joy, lost their home in the Chalet Village neighborhood to the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfire.
"I don't remember having a dream about it for two or three years now. I used to dream about it, but the images are still pretty vivid in my head," Jucker said.
Fire may have consumed his home, but flames have not touched Pete's spirit.