Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge officials discuss road to recovery one year after wildfires

BY KATE COIL

One year after devastating wildfires ravaged Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and much of East Tennessee, cities in the region are well on the road to recovery and eager for visitors answer the call of the mountains.

Pigeon Forge City Manager Earlene Teaster said wildfires had always been a fact of life for area residents, but no one had expected a fire of the scope and magnitude experienced in November 2016.

“The fire could have been controlled had it not been for the near hurricane-force winds that happened, which we had never seen before,” Teaster said. “At the base of the Smoky Mountains, we are used to wildfires but they’ve always been easily maintained. It was the addition of the wind that changed things, and they said we had winds up to 80 or 85-miles-per-hour. It came together and created a perfect storm. I would have never dreamed that morning that by the evening I would be sleeping in our fire hall. It happened so quickly.”

Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle said she was awake for 36 straight hours at the city’s command center the day of the fires.
“My hope and prayer for every community is that they never have to experience something like what happened here,” Ogle said. “It was a historic and unprecedented event not just in Sevier County but also the state of Tennessee and the Southeast as it relates to wildfires. It was just a highly unprecedented set of circumstances that led to this horrific happening.”

The area has been in the midst of the rebuilding process for the past six months with 300 structures currently being worked on within the city limits of Gatlinburg and another 300 in Sevier County.

“A little more than 1,000 structures were destroyed,” Ogle said. “Of the structures destroyed, only about 60 were commercial. By and large, the structures destroyed were residential. Of those residential structures, we estimate at least 50 percent were second homes or overnight rental facilities. There was definitely a misconception that Gatlinburg had burned down or that we lost the downtown. Our downtown has remained pretty much intact. In the eastern part of town, the fire actually stopped right before it got to the city hall. The arts and crafts community had some smoke damage, but there was no fire damage.”

In fact, Ogle was one of 11 city employees who lost their homes in the fires, which also included Mayor Mike Werner and members of the city’s fire and police department. Ogle said members of the city’s public safety departments worked tirelessly to protect other citizens while their own homes burned.
While Pigeon Forge didn’t lose as many structures as other areas, Teaster said the town and local business were still impacted by the wildfires.

“Things could have been a lot worse for us,” she said. “We didn’t lose any businesses, but we lost an entire subdivision of 19 structures. I think our visitation was affected the most. Pigeon Forge’s only industry is tourism. We have bounced back this year. Our city board and business community have worked together to address that. We have had great assistance from the state of Tennessee, the Tennessee Department of Tourism, and our state legislators. They came to our rescue this year.
Despite the devastation, Ogle said Gatlinburg residents have remained strong.

“We are Mountain Though; that’s not just a cute phrase,” she said. “We are resilient, and the overriding thing is our strong faith in God. He has given us strength in our community, personally and professionally to get up and start the process of healing, recovery and to rebuild. I already knew that about our community, but it’s certainly been underlined and highlighted in a big way. We are adjusting to a new normal. My entire life is a new normal.”

Teaster said also she and many others felt a renewed sense of faith in her community because of the disaster.
“I learned Pigeon Forge is very resilient, and that the business community and the residents of this town can come together. They fully supported our city,” she said. “They brought food, gave shelter, and the lodging folks gave free rooms. We had places for the Red Cross to set up. Everybody – and I mean everybody – stepped up to the plate. We received donations from literally all over the country. We received things from as far north as Chicago and as far west as California. For two or three weeks, people came forward and supported Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville and our whole community.”

In particular, Teaster said city employees went above and beyond the call of duty.
“I saw my public safety employees, especially, come together as I had never seen before,” she said. “They worked absolutely diligently and wonderfully together. They didn’t miss a beat, and I am so very, very grateful for them. The remaining departments also stepped up to the plate. They cut trees out of the roadways and whatever else they could do to help for three or four weeks. It was a team effort, and they all did a very good job.”

Ogle said Gatlinburg city employees also did whatever they could during the disaster.
“Everyone – from first responders to city employees, personnel and management – did everything they could to the best of their ability and with the information that we had to save lives and save property,” Ogle said. “It took all of our employees pulling together. There was no ‘this isn’t my job’ or ‘this department needs to do it.’ We really wanted to make sure the non-first responder employees received due recognition, so we have been doing a few employee appreciation luncheons to thank them. They showed a dedication to this city that I will be eternally grateful for.”

Ogle said she learned early on that disaster recovery takes time and patience.
“Our Congressman, Rep. Phil Roe, said to me during those early days ‘Cindy, this is a marathon not a sprint,’” she said. “I can tell you, I’m a sprinter, not a marathoner. I want to go to it and get it done. Recovery is definitely a marathon and not a sprint. You also have to keep as much of the media noise out as you can so you can focus on what you need to do. We had PR people handling most of that and if I needed to know something they told me. However, I didn’t even start reading the local newspaper again until the middle of January. You have to stay as focused as you can, and you have to lean on God, your family, your staff, management team, and administrative staff. You realize you are really blessed when you go through something like this.”

On the advice of FEMA officials, Ogle said the city and county also created a nonprofit organization, Mountain Tough, to help with long-term recovery needs. Officials from Bastrop, Texas, who had experienced wildfires in the past helped Gatlinburg officials set up the 501c3.
“All of the cities and the county contributed money to ensure all of the money taken through Mountain Tough goes to those in need,” Ogle said. “Dolly Parton’s fund contributed a balance of about $2.3 million that they had. Our Gatlinburg Relief Fund is doing the same thing. The goal is to help meet those unmet needs of the community. This organization allows us government folks to do the government stuff we need to do – both related to the fires and not – but still help those in need. There are certain things government can and can’t do, and we wanted to do what was best for our community.”

Teaster said the city as a whole and, in particular the Pigeon Forge Fire Department under the direction of Fire Chief Tony Watson have taken steps to make sure they are prepared for future fire-related disasters.

“We are improving upon our communications with our community,” Teaster said. “We also just adopted the Firewise program, which has only been around six or seven years itself. We are one of the smallest communities to have adopted that program. We have a wonderful fire department, and our goal is to keep improving on the good things we already have.”

As the city moves forward, Ogle said the city has also taken steps to prepare for future disasters.
“We are in the process of expanding our emergency notification system, and received approval from FEMA to do the iPhone alert locally through our Sevier County Emergency Management Agency,” she said. “We are getting an AM radio station that can be tuned to in case of emergency. We have purchased satellite phones for any future situation where communications may go out. We have made and are continuing to make improvements to our emergency response functions.”

Teaster said visitors have already been coming back to the area.
“Visitation has been down through the summer, but we are well on the road to recovery,” Teaster said. “We have seen healthy growth in September, October and November. We will end the year on a real positive note.”
In addition to rebuilding homes lost in the fires, new commercial construction has also returned to the area.
“We had four major commercial developments planned before the fires,” Ogle said. “Fortunately, the fires did not discourage that. Of the four, three have been completed and opened: two hotels on Airport Road and the Anakeesta multi-attraction development. Another hotel is still under construction in the downtown area and will open next spring.”

On Nov. 28, the city of Gatlinburg and Sevier County held a memorial event at Rocky Top Sports World to honor the one-year anniversary of the fires. At the ceremony, the city unveiled the schematics for a permanent memorial to be erected in honor of both first responders and those who lost their lives in the fires.
“It will be located on the north end of town,” Ogle said. “There will be a pedestrian bridge constructed over the river that runs through town. The parkway side will be a tribute to the first responders and then you cross the bridge into a much more quiet setting. That will be where the memorial to those who lost their lives will be placed. The city has some right-of-way along the river in this particular location, and so we will be creating a walking trail that will go north down by the river.”

The town of Pigeon Forge also recently unveiled a tribute wall at its Patriot Park to honor the first responders who came from communities around Tennessee to help in fire suppression and recovery efforts.
“We had 64 fire departments from across the state come into town last year, and we wanted to find a way on the first anniversary to thank all of them,” Teaster said. “Many of them were volunteers from their communities and they were here for several days. We believe that, most likely, Pigeon Forge would have suffered much worse without their assistance or help.”

Some 225 firefighters worked for five days across the area to beat back the flames. A lunch to thank the first responders was held earlier in the day. More than 200 first responders were honored at the surprise unveiling, which was held as part of the kick-off to Pigeon Forge’s annual Winterfest.
“This is not just about the firefighters,” Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson said at the ceremony. “This is about the whole community out there and what it means. I’m so proud to be a part of this community.”