On November 28, 2016 the perfect storm formed over the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This is our story on how the Gatlinburg wildfires affected us. The wildfire started in the Chimney Tops and spread to cover 11,000 acres in the park itself. Drought conditions and extreme winds caused the wildfire to grow rapidly. Wind reached gusts over 80 mph, these winds carried embers and knocked down electric poles starting fires in multiple places in and around Gatlinburg. The National Park Service has the Park’s complete story here.
Receiving the News
On Monday November 28, 2016 I received a text alert, at 8:45 pm. It said there was a smoke alarm going off inside Roaring Fork. I immediately called Chris. He pulled up our security cameras and we watched as our log home and the entire street burned. We watched until all the cameras went offline and sat helpless over 200 miles away as one of our dreams burned to the ground. Both of us were in shock and couldn’t imagine what we would find in the end. We were thankful we still had a place to go, Bella Vista. We sat together quietly that night, not really knowing what to say to each other.
Four hours later we received another text that smoke alarms at Bella were now being set off. Multiple calls came in from the alarm service as each door and window sensor inside Bella Vista melted.
Not knowing how bad things really were, we contacted the fire department and never thought we would reach an emergency service so over whelmed they had no idea what to tell us. Nothing could be done. The fire had reached so many homes the fire department was speechless. The size of the fire was unimaginable. No one was prepared for the wind to pick up and carry it down the mountains to homes.
Seeing the damage
Emergency services allowed home owners back into the area at the end of the week. There was one way in and cars were backed up for miles. It easily took 2 hours once in line to get into the restricted area. The devastation was mind-blowing. I can not describe the smell or my emotions as we drove into our beloved town as it was still smoking.
We went to the site of Roaring Fork first. The property is at the end of a road lined by cabins, some belonging to locals we call friends. As we drove toward the end of the road, everything was gone. There were only black holes left with smoke slowly rising above each empty space where each cabin once stood. Before the fires, I always looked forward to rounding the corner and seeing MY cabin sitting above the river below, one of my favorite sites. On this day as we drove down the road and rounded that corner, the space was empty. What was once my pride and joy that I loved sharing with all of you, now an empty black hole as well. Many memories were made there by my family and many others.
I am a “stuff” person. My things have great meaning to me. Staring into a hole with all of our things melted and distorted into piles of blackened soot was debilitating to me. It was all just stuff, but it was our stuff. We worked and saved for all of these things, each piece having a story or memory behind it.
I want to share one experience I had that day. It made me feel that in the end it would all be OK. The temperature was in the low 50’s on that Friday and there was no sign of life, except the people looking at what was left of their lives. I hadn’t noticed a bird or even an insect. Then, as I stood there, a butterfly flew right in front of my face and landed on the dirt next to me. I squatted down and it stayed as if it was telling me it would be OK. Then, just as it came, it flew back into the black and gray forest. From what I have read, butterflies usually don’t fly around in less than 60 degree weather. I held on to that moment as we left and started to see the damage at our other home away from home.
Bella Vista is at the top of a small mountain with about 12 other cabins down below. As we entered Laurel Oaks Resort, it looked similar to the rest of the properties. Each structure a smoking black hole in the ground. All but one cabin was gone in the entire development. It still amazes us that every house burned except for one. After seeing all the damage around the resort, turning into Bella’s driveway and seeing only the mountain view remaining really didn’t surprise me. Once again we stood over a hole and looked at what remained. As Chris and I let it all sink in, we realized Bella still had one thing that could not be taken away… the view.
After staring into a black hole and recognizing melted pieces of the belongings that were now only memories, we departed and wouldn’t return until January as we started planning the rebuilds.
It is truly amazing the damage a fire can do. As we walked through the remains we would recognize pieces and were able to identify items. Things also surprised us as we were looking though. The dishes in the dish washer were unharmed. some had broken when the dishwasher fell from the second story, but other than that they were in almost perfect condition. Any ceramic items, pottery, were only covered in soot. One small vase still sat on top the hot water heater where I had put it one day while cleaning.
Since that day in January we have rebuilt Bella Vista, purchased 3 more properties and are currently working on Roaring Fork’s rebuild. Roaring Fork will once again be my pride and joy, and I can not wait to share it with you and hear of the memories you make.
In the End
The wildfire ended up killing 14 people and injuring 190 more. Damage caused by the fire was estimated at over $500 million. Over 2460 structures were damaged or destroyed and 17,136 acres were burned.
I have heard so many stories from families that break my heart and I can not imagine losing my forever home. My heart goes out to each family who lost everything. Many families and home owners have started to rebuild or have completely rebuilt as of now.
Main Image Photo: The Chimney Tops 2 wildfire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Photo by Chris Higgins Photography.