Gatlinburg is Burning, And You Can Help

Gatlinburg, a Northeast Tennessee tourist destination, is burning. No one is discussing the severity of this outside the local news media, and they’re not doing much. Here’s the best information you’ll find on the subject in one spot. As I get information that is verified, I will update this post.

1. How did the fire get started? 

Before Gatlinburg caught fire, approximately sixteen thousand acres of forestry were caught up in wildfires. This was due to a combination of arson and a severe drought in the region. We’ve not had a good rain in months, and that plus jackasses setting fires despite “burn bans” being issued across the region means unprecedented amounts of wildfires. We’ve had firefighters from all over the nation come help out the region, and for that we are truly grateful.

Last night (November 28, 2016) our region got some rain. It also got serious winds, ranging in the realm of 80-100 MPH gusts. This took fires already burning in the Smoky Mountains, knocking down trees and casting burning embers into the city of Gatlinburg.

Before the fires actually started wind damage to existing structures threatened people. Luke Walker, a seven foot tall pro wrestler, was a touch angry on social media that people were being seated at Bubba Gump’s while wind blew siding off the building. The best answer is a combination of wind, existing flames, and a lack of real rain caused the fire.

2. How bad did the fire get?

Really bad. Worse than you’re hearing on any major news outlet or local. When Luke Walker realized the smoke alone was enough to harm people he started running from business to business telling people to get out of Gatlinburg as quickly as possible. The tourists and business owners didn’t take him seriously, until the flames started to get out of hand, destroying several memorable structures.

Local news outlets reported as of 5 PM EST yesterday first responders were going door to door asking for a “voluntary evacuation” of Gatlinburg.  While this is not in dispute, as of publication Gatlinburg is in “mandatory evacuation.” Pigeon Forge is not, despite reports to the contrary.

The flames and smoke were enough for one eye witness to describe it as “Dante’s Inferno.” Vinnie Vineyard, a local taxi service owner, took one of his vehicles into town repeatedly evacuating people until he finally crashed around 8 AM today. He drove through flaming debris and excessive winds. During his night of evacuations he described the smoke as so thick and black you couldn’t see the headlights of the other drivers on the roads.

The fire actually spread into Pigeon Forge, potentially harming a bald eagle sanctuary in Dollywood, a local theme park. Fortunately, it didn’t get far enough to harm any animals in the park.

Another major point of concern was Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which housed numerous aquatic creatures you can’t just pack up in a bag when you’re told to leave. Fortunately, it’s been confirmed the aquarium wasn’t harmed by the fire even though the hills around it were on fire. Marine biologists and staffers are currently tending to the animals in the aquarium and will continue to do so through the facility’s re-opening.

3. How bad was the damage?

The Gatlinburg fire destroyed numerous local landmarks and places of interest. A wedding chapel is destroyed. “Mystery Mansion” is gone. Other areas are questionable, and that’s because the fire’s been contained enough and the smoke cleared for people to actually get boots on the ground and assess damage.

Hundreds of people lost their homes. Several resorts are burnt sticks. It’s hard to give an accurate account of what is standing and what isn’t because the reports from “news” outlets are conflicting with firsthand accounts I’m getting on social media.

As of this writing, over 200 structures are confirmed destroyed. There are still structural fires being fought. Thousands are in shelters set up by the Red Cross.

Three fatalities are confirmed. No names given at this time.
There is a standing curfew in Sevier County from 6 PM to 6 AM. Emergency personnel are asking anyone to stay away from Sevier County at the moment. People may be well intentioned but it’s still an active emergency scene. Residents in the area are asked to refrain from mobile usage so emergency crews can effectively communicate.

4. Holy shit. What can I do to help? 

Glad you asked. First, the easiest thing to do is text REDCROSS to 90999. That will chip in $10 for the Red Cross so they can do what they need to help however possible.

Second, check out Friends of the Smokies. They’re doing a fundraiser right now.

If you’re looking to donate tangible goods, more to come on that. Just keep in mind the best thing to do is find a local drop off point for a major donation site and go there. Attempting to get directly to Sevier County will do you and those in need no good.

This is a disaster no one ever saw coming. It’s a punch in the gut to so many in this region. The outpouring of support is great to see, but this is just day 1.

More to come.