We know the beautiful mountains have experienced hard times fighting flames in the past. Destruction and regrowth is part of nature, but knowing this doesn’t make it any simpler.
Research on fires proves them useful and necessary for healthy ecosystems. It takes everyone to ensure the safety of the park, ecosystems and wildlife of the Smokies. Including the mountains, cabins, attractions and the town we’ve all come to know and love.
How many wildfires have there been in the Smokies?
There have been two recent wildfires in the Smoky Mountains. One of the most covered and widest spread fires happened in 2016 in Gatlinburg. It grew extremely close to the downtown strip. Eventually the whole town was under evacuation.
Fires are common in this region, mostly due to lighting and usually occurring in May or June. Dupont/Millstone Gap fire and Hatcher Mountain/Indigo Lane fire started within a day of each other. They’re the most recent fires as of April 2022.
The 2022 fires weren’t as bad as they could have been, thanks to lessons learned from the 2016 fires. It’s been reported that over one 4 day period, these most recent fires burnt over 3300 acres of forest. Areas in East Tennessee like Wears Valley, Seymour, and nearby communities have been affected by these fires.
It’s estimated that several hundred structures have been affected by the 2022 fires, which is an improvement over the 2016 fires when 14 people lost their lives and over 2500 homes were destroyed.
More about the wildfires in the Smokies
Dupont or Millstone Gap was considered a planned burn, according to the Tennessee Division of Forestry, to rid of any “areas of unburned fuel”. It burned for a week, spanning around a thousand acres. Scheduled or not, two structures were affected, one in Sevier County and the other in Blount County.
Just a day before the scheduled burn in Dupont, Hatcher Mountain went up in smoke from fallen power lines. The lines caused over 2,000 acres to turn to ash. Reinforcements came to help fight the flames, but were sent home once local crews had it contained.
From March 30 – April 3rd, winds were high which contributed to the quick spread after aiding in the initial igniting of both fires. Between the two, property damage reached $65.7 million dollars. Thankfully the 2016 fires had impacted officials, and most importantly the way they handle the fires and citizens now.
What happened in 2016?
What happened in the Smoky Mountains in 2016? Gatlinburg was shut down for a week, the aquarium was evacuated, but the people were notified too late. Many residents were stranded as a result of the late evacuation. On the morning of November 28th, ashes rained down from the glowing red sky. It was an unsettling scene to say the least.
We spoke to one local who was stuck atop Ski Mountain Road as this was all unfolding. “I only found out about the fire being so close around 8pm. By then, it was too late to leave” she said.
She recalls walking to the top of the mountain and seeing the fires spread. “There was a small river below with trees and brush overlapping, I knew if it crossed the spring we would be in serious danger.”
She even called 911, which was overrun with calls of desperate, terrified residents and tourists looking for an escape. There were various routes being talked about on the news, as a safe way to exit the mountaintop. As she drove down the mountain, all she saw were flames.
14 people lost their lives, 2,500 homes and businesses were destroyed. Resulting in $2 billion dollars in damages over the 17,900 acres it claimed. People were driving through fire on the spur, stranded on dead end streets, or trying to find out if their friends and family were safe.
The fire progressed for 4 days before reaching the Smokies, yet we were incompetent. For a month it taunted the area, November 23rd to December 22nd, ending just in time for families to try and regroup before Christmas.
There are numerous videos, recorded police calls, and stories about the horrendous events experienced by those stranded or struggling to leave. Many lost their businesses, homes, and the lives of loved ones. Thankfully, officials have taken their mistakes and truly learned from them.
How did the 2016 fires start?
Unfortunately, this fire was labeled as arson. Two teenagers, 15 and 17 years old, were caught in a photo leaving Chimney Tops Trail with smoke behind them. One of the oldest teens’ parents works in the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office. They were tossing lit matches on the ground. With how dry the conditions were, the raging winds, not to mention the lack of fire hydrants in the national park, access was a big issue.
Had officials ordered water dropped sooner, it wouldn’t have stopped it for certain, but it could’ve proved beneficial. When water was finally ordered to drop, it was a 26 mile trip to the designated water source to refill and return.
On November 28th, the winds reached 60mph, feeding the fiery lake towards Gatlinburg. Most residents didn’t know the blaze was getting so close, as coverage was not what it is today.
Were the teens charged?
The teens who started this fatal wildfire were dropped of all charges. Jimmy Dunn, 4th Judicial District Attorney General, knew he couldn’t directly prove that they started the fire.
Dunn knew the wind conditions to come and that the fire was allowed to continue burning. Though he still tried charging the teens, and had no comment on why. The prosecution of the minors were utilized for hiding public records on the fire and how officials responded.
How can we prevent fires?
Drought is a big factor in the Smokies, as it is in many other areas of Tennessee and surrounding. Being cautious and considerate of fire ordinances and rain/wind conditions is a good place to start. Other tips to keeping our land safe include:
- Extinguishing any hot charcoal
- Tend any fire or embers capable of producing fire
- Keep water or other fire retardants nearby
- Be mindful when handling any flame
- Don’t play with matches or lighters
- Keep children away from fire or items capable of producing fire
Fires happen often in Tennessee and forests as a whole. Whether it’s downed power lines, lighting strikes, or careless individuals, it’s the inevitable cycle of life. Dupont and Hatchet Mountain are both extinguished, burning for a little more than a week together.
The 2016 fires were a tragedy for the town and all who’ve come to love it. Learning from the mistakes of officials is important, and essential for safety. From the words of Smokey Bear, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.”