Gatlinburg, Tennessee — The Gatlinburg wildfire, also called the “Chimney Tops 2 Fire,” is possibly Tennessee’s biggest fire in the past century. It has burned over 16,000 acres in Tennessee, destroying or damaging 700 businesses and homes throughout Sevier County.
The fire is centered in the Smoky Mountains region, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the eastern border of Tennessee. More than 14,000 people have been evacuated from Gatlinburg alone, and they await news of when they can go home — if they still have homes to go to. There have been numerous reports of critical injuries and death due to this wildfire.
Here’s what you need to know about this fire:
1Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam Declared a State of Emergency
On December 1, 2016, Tennessee’s governor, Bill Haslam, declared an official state of emergency. It is hoped that this will speed up delivery of aid to wildfire victims. The governor also suspended certain state laws and eased other requirements to help victims. He asked the state’s commissioner of Commerce and Insurance to use his own judgment in assisting insurance policyholders, even in cases where premium payments have been delayed.
Haslam also waived fees for issuing new driver’s licenses and other identification to victims of the disaster. In addition, he loosened restrictions on medical professionals licensed in other states so they can more easily help fire victims in Tennessee.
2At Least 11 People Died in the Fire
The death toll for the Tennessee fire has steadily risen since the fire began. At first 4 deaths were reported, then 5, then 7, and finally 11. Dean Flener, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) spokesman, announced the eleventh death on December 1st.
The death toll has climbed so rapidly that officials in Sevier County said they weren’t aware of the eleventh death until this announcement. Three fire victims were identified by their family members; however, authorities have not released identities of the victims. Leslie Earhart, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, confirmed that final identifications will be handled by medical examiners.
Insiders believe this means that some victims might have to be identified from dental records. Randy Brackins, Gatlinburg Police Chief, was nearly in tears as he lamented the slow pace of search-and-rescue efforts:
“It’s one of the most difficult things you can imagine,” he admitted. “I know you’re frustrated. If it were my family members, I’d be frustrated.”
Three victims were found in the area of Chalet Village, known as “the premier destination for Gatlinburg cabins” rented to tourists. Another victim was discovered in or near a Sevier County motel, and three more were found in a private home.
3The Fire May Have Been “Human Caused”
According to local news outlet The Daily Times, the fire was probably caused by humans. The day before Thanksgiving, on Wednesday, November 23, 2016, a fire began in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that quickly spread over three acres, causing the closure of parts of the park’s Chimney Tops Trail.
Chief Ranger Steve Kloster of the National Park Service announced in a press release later that day that this fire appeared to be the result of someone’s actions. Investigators believe this three-acre may have been the beginning of the enormous conflagration that eventually spread through the park and into neighboring areas. Kloster said in a press release,
“The cause of the fire near Chimney Tops appears to be human caused.”
He asked that anyone with information about who might have started the fire would phone the park’s tip line. Kloster has not yet said whether he believes the fire was started accidentally or intentionally as arson.
4The Fire Was Fueled by Strong Winds and Dry Conditions
Although rains on Wednesday, November 30, helped firefighters contain the enormous blaze, conditions when the fire began were dry and windy in that part of Tennessee. The original Chimney Tops fire burned through the underbrush along the northeast slope of the Chimney Tops mountain over steep and rugged terrain.
Extremely dry conditions in Tennessee made it easier for the fire to grow. According to National Park Chief Ranger Steve Kloster,
“We are experiencing extremely dry conditions throughout the park and we are asking for the public’s help to prevent uncontrolled wildfires.”
5The Fire Came Frighteningly Close to Dollywood
Hardest hit by the fire was the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge region of Tennessee. Pigeon Forge is perhaps best known as the location of country music icon Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood. The park was miraculously spared. Parton grew up in the area, and she has pledged to help the fire’s victims by establishing a fund to aid victims of the wildfire.
Her Dollywood Company and Dollywood Foundation are jointly establishing the “My People Fund”. The fund will provide $1,000 monthly to Sevier County families who lost their homes. Parton said she hopes the financial assistance will help people who lost everything get back on their feet again.