Thoughts on the Great Smokies Fire

img_0914Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam called it the worst fire in a hundred years in Tennessee. Gatlinburg’s fire chief called it “one for the history books.”

No matter how you look at it, the recent fire that erupted at the Chimneys area of the Great Smoky Mountains and spread faster than anyone could have imagined was huge and unprecedented. The lengthy drought had prepared the ground cover and other vegetation of the area, apparently human actions sparked it, and then the sudden hurricane-force winds spread it before the initial fire could be contained. Human tragedy and physical devastation were the results.

That area of the country has a special place in my heart. I’m a native East Tennessean. I spent many hours during my childhood and my daughters’ childhoods camping, picnicking, hiking, sight-seeing, and shopping there. I knew the area well when Pigeon Forge was just a handful of tourist shops and a forlorn attraction called the Rebel Railroad along the road to Gatlinburg and, beyond that, Elkmont and Cades Cove, the largest campgrounds on the Tennessee side of the national park. As much as I hated to see the explosive development of the area, which I thought depleted its natural beauty, I realize that it was the local residents’ way of making a living that, unlike the earlier logging operations, did not totally denude the landscape. I watched the area go from a purely seasonal (primarily summer and, less frequently, during winter snowfalls) to a year-round destination.

The area was so special to my entire family that last Christmas, my daughters and their husbands (none of whom are natives of East Tennessee) elected for the family to gather in a rented cabin in Wears Valley to celebrate the holiday together. It isn’t often that everyone in our family, scattered as they are around the nation, can all get together in one place, but we made it happen in the Smokies. (The accompanying photo is the view we had from that cabin, “American Beauty,” at dusk.) When the fires broke out and spread, one of the first questions each of my daughters asked me when they called for updates was, “Did the fire get our cabin?”

Our cabin.

Yes, the Smokies are special to us. But this fire and its immediate aftermath made us proud of the people of the area, too, in the way they reacted to the tragedy. We were impressed by the way the public officials, some of whom were among those who lost everything to the fires, worked without thought of their own losses or weariness to address and fight the conflagration. We were impressed by the hundreds of first responders from both inside and outside the area who rushed in to offer their assistance, living up to the state’s historic nickname, the Volunteers. Many of them fought the fire and worked to rescue victims despite their own personal losses.

And we were impressed by the regular citizens of the area and the state and their reaction. Whereas in some areas of the country such a tragedy would be perceived by some characters as a signal to loot and disrupt, that didn’t even enter the minds of the East Tennesseans. They did not start begging for government handouts or assistance; they just chipped in and helped themselves and their neighbors–and total strangers–deal with the situation. (Most of the 14,000 who had to be evacuated were tourists; the permanent population of Gatlinburg is only about 4,000.)

However, the one thing that I was ashamed of arose several days after the worst of the fires had died down or been contained, and that came from outsiders among the media. They began to rudely question the efforts of the local officials to fight the fire, to warn the victims, and to provide aid. I watched proudly, however, as the long-suffering but frustrated Sevier County mayor finally stepped in to halt their asinine behavior by saying that the questioners did not know the area where the fires had started, did not realize the difficulty of the terrain and the problems encountered in even hiking, much less maneuvering heavy equipment into the fire zone, and should not be trying to become “Monday morning quarterbacks.”

I cheered when I heard his blunt response, and I wanted to ask the outside reports, “Where were you during the fire? Were you trying to get equipment up those steep mountains? Were you working desperately to quench the wind-driven flames? Were you knocking on cabin doors and running through walls of flame to rescue tourists who were unaware of how fast the flames were spreading and taking them to safety? Or were you working from your areas of relative safety and comfort to find some negative little molehill to build into a mountain and sensationalize? Instead of trying to undermine the civilian authorities who were working to do their best to fight the fires, rescue the endangered, care for the displaced, and provide you, the media, with the most current, verifiable information, why weren’t you asking questions such as one local reporter who asked, “How can we best pray for you government officials?”

But the media attempts to discredit those who were working to resolve the situation was a mere blip that failed to dampen the spirits of the Tennesseans who actually did something to help. Money began pouring in to provide for the victims. Business owners, who often themselves had suffered losses from the fire, voluntarily continued to pay their now-unemployed workers. Restaurants remained open to feed the firefighters and rescue workers and policemen. Dolly Parton, who has played a big role in the economic development of the area, began a fund to provide for displaced residents and workers. Although Red Cross personnel were quickly inundated with in-kind donations and began asking for monetary donations instead, locals wanted to ensure that the help they offered got directly to the fire victims and was not thrown into a stewpot from which it might be distributed elsewhere. Private charities began accepting the flood of in-kind donations. People came with trucks and trailers filled with supplies of all sorts. And they came not only from other areas of East Tennessee but also outlying states, including Kentucky and Ohio.

This is the true American spirit. This is what all America used to be. Years ago, such a response would not have raised any eyebrows or attracted any undue attention because it was the norm. But today it is noticed–and noteworthy–because it is so rare in our nation. I’m thankful that this spirit has surfaced yet again among the hearty, stalwart, hard-working people of East Tennessee! It’s a big deal. But not to East Tennesseans. To them, as the state’s development slogan once stated, “it just comes natural.”

GO VOLS!

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