Not a forest fire, but a 'firestorm'

Reflections on a Gatlinburg tragedy

Posted 6/4/18

Rotary Club of Pigeon Forge member Jerry Wear recently told Cleveland Rotarians that the 2016 Chimney Tops fire was a night of terror, but that scores of volunteers, including local Rotarians, helped …

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Not a forest fire, but a 'firestorm'

Reflections on a Gatlinburg tragedy


Rotary Club of Pigeon Forge member Jerry Wear recently told Cleveland Rotarians that the 2016 Chimney Tops fire was a night of terror, but that scores of volunteers, including local Rotarians, helped provide aid and comfort to people victimized by the act of arson.

His comment was made during a presentation to the Rotary Club of Cleveland during their weekly luncheon at the Museum Center. Wear was a Rotary Club district governor from 2014 to 2015.

“We didn’t have a forest fire, we had a firestorm,” Wear said of the November 2016 incident, which resulted in several deaths, as well as the loss of hundreds of homes.

The fire, which was set by two boys, also devastated the rental cabin and condominium business, Wear said. Charges were dropped against the two after a judge determined there was no jurisdiction over federal land. The fire was sparked by an illegal fire set inside the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park by two teenagers. However, the two have yet to be charged with a federal crime.

Wear said an extreme drought, as well as the high number of dead trees – killed over time by the woolly adelgid, an invasive insect – created ideal conditions for a massive burn.

“There was a large amount of leaves that fall,” Wear said. “The dead hemlocks were also fuel for the fire. With that and the 85 to 87 mile-per-hour-winds, it was like hurricane conditions. The fire just spread.”

Wear also said the fire spread through the underground root system of the forest. He said the fire path fortunately split east and west, saving a major tourist mecca from utter destruction.

“The fire was moving toward Gatlinburg, but then it split. If it had continued on its path, it would have burned the whole city down,” Wear said, noting the commercial district of that mountain town was mostly spared of damage. “The fire moved faster than we could evacuate. There were 500 houses on fire at one time.”

Although fire departments rushed to respond to calls from 911, there were some people left in the higher elevations of the mountain landscape that was dotted with residences.

“The roads on Ski Mountain were built for people to get to cabins, not for fire trucks (to navigate),” Wear said. “We had 14 people who died.”

The fire departments, several comprised only of volunteers, were able to save many people, however.

“Thank goodness for fire departments,” said Wear who noted that the Bradley County Fire-Rescue had responded to the call for emergency help.

He described the heroic action of one volunteer firefighter who saved an elderly couple from certain death.

“They had tried to escape the fire on the mountain and got stranded in their car after the heat caused their tires to blow out. They struggled to a nearby ditch to lay down. They told each other that they’d had good lives and started praying,” Wear said. “Smoke and fire was all around them. The fireman was nearby, but he couldn’t see them but the could hear them praying. He found them and saved their lives.”

He said the firefighter was wearing protective gear, but he suffered burns while carrying the man’s wife to safety.

“His boots melted to his feet,” said Wear, who added there were many other stories of people being saved by volunteers.

The stories of disaster and misery were followed with examples of the generosity of the human spirit.

“We had 40,000 volunteers from 18 states over three months,” Wear said. “Hotels allowed people who had lost their homes to stay up to three weeks, restaurants gave out free food, people donated medicine and clothing. People were traumatized and needed help.”

Wear added that Bush’s Beans of Dandridge donated 48,000 pounds of canned beans, which was ideal because they can be eaten out of the can without being heated.

Wear said life "is returning to normal" and that the city was ready for tourists not long after the destructive fire.

It took three to five months to get people to understand we were open for business,” Wear said. “People thought the city was destroyed, but we just lost eight hotels. We have hundreds of them.”

He said the Rotary Club was integral in organizing the recovery effort.

“If it wasn’t for the Rotary, none of it would’ve happened,” Wear said. “People had nowhere to go, no one to help them.”

 Donated goods collected by Rotarians and various volunteers were stored in a warehouse, where people could pick the items they needed. Wear said the building held over 4 million items and was the second largest “store” in the area behind the local Wal-Mart.

He said it has taken almost two years to return to some form of normality and commented that nature is already doing its part to aid in the recovery.

“The trees and greenery are already growing,” Wear said.

The success the Rotarians had in conducting recovery relief caught the notice of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agencies were impressed by how swiftly the Rotarians swung into action as the smoke from the fires was still dissipating.

“Government takes a long time to do anything, but we stepped in,” Wear said. “They wanted to know how we got so much stuff donated.”

Wear said the two agencies, seeing the outpouring of help, now want Rotarians to train people in other states how to respond to disasters.

 “None of us were trained,” Wear said with some pride regarding the contributions his fellow club members, contributions made in aiding those traumatized by fire and destruction. “We were business people and leaders. We were Rotarians.”


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