VOL. 131 | NO. 249 | Thursday, December 15, 2016
The Daily Traveler
BY LANCE WIEDOWER, Special to The Daily News
I couldn’t believe my eyes late the night of Nov. 28 as I mindlessly scrolled through my Twitter feed and began seeing videos of drivers frantically passing through massive walls of flame shooting skyward along the road.
It was happening in the beautiful resort town of Gatlinburg in East Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For the next couple of hours I couldn’t stop looking at social media posts of strangers trying to escape the wildfire that ultimately killed 14 people, injured 176, and damaged or destroyed 2,460 buildings, including 1,137 in Gatlinburg.
This time of year is a festive one in East Tennessee. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are decked with holiday lights, the outlet malls are filled with shoppers and the multitude of cabins, resorts and hotels are jammed with vacationers. Now, many of those mountain homes are destroyed.
But people are slowly coming back. Gatlinburg and the park reopened on Dec. 9.
The Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce Foundation is collecting donations to support those who have been affected by the fire. Contributors can make one-time donations or set up regular contributions.
But another way to give is by supporting the businesses that remain open with a visit. It might not be possible to alter your holiday travel plans, but if you possibly already had the region in mind for a visit in the coming months, it would be good to keep it in mind.
The danger of the fires is mostly gone. The wildfire began in a remote area of the park in steep terrain with cliffs and rocky ridges. Thanks to the severe drought affecting the region and high winds that blew in on Nov. 28, the fire quickly grew and embers spread for miles.
The national park is open, although several trails are closed. All park campsites that are normally open this time of year are open, with the exception of one on the Huskey Gap Trail. The park has reported that none of its historic structures or park facilities were damaged.
The city of Gatlinburg received extensive damage. However, the city’s downtown was largely unaffected. An old friend who now lives in Virginia traveled to Gatlinburg over the weekend to get married.
The trip had been planned since the summer, and while the chapel my friend Violet had booked along with the cabin were both reported safe, she said at least one wedding chapel did burn to the ground.
The cabin owner was happy to have the business, as was the beauty salon where Violet kept her appointment.
There was a strange smell of an ionizer used to clean the salon – a building behind it had burned to the ground. Otherwise, Violet said, everything seemed fine. Damage is obvious higher in the mountains, but downtown Gatlinburg is intact with decorations and lights up as usual.
So, yes, there is real damage in the East Tennessee mountains, but don’t let it deter your visit to Gatlinburg.
Lance Wiedower can be reached at tripsbylance.com.