The Rotary response to The Sevier County Firestorm
Sep 07, 2018
Jerry Wear, past District Governor
The Rotary response to The Sevier County Firestorm

On 28 November 2016, high winds blew through the drought-stricken area around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, whipping a few isolated wildfires in Great Smoky Mountains National Park into a massive natural disaster.

“The whole horizon was aglow,” says Roy Helton, a member of the Rotary Club of Pigeon Forge. “My wife and I were taking turns getting up, checking to make sure the fire wasn’t getting close to our home. We have roughly 100,000 people in Sevier County, and I don’t think any of us slept very well that night.”

 

The Heltons were lucky, but many others weren’t. The fire raced through the towns around Gatlinburg, destroying more than 2,400 structures. It spread over 17,000 acres so quickly that 14 people were trapped and killed, while others had to flee their homes. Around 14,000 people were evacuated from the area and not allowed to return for a week. Many lost everything, including their jobs. Gatlinburg, which sits on the edge of the national park, is a major tourist destination with millions of visitors each year, but in the aftermath of the fires, many stayed away. 

“This wasn’t a regular forest fire,” says Jerry Wear, also a member of the Pigeon Forge club. “It was a firestorm.” Most fires, he notes, leave debris such as charred stoves and cars. But the Gatlinburg fire “was so intense, they melted.”