The 2016 Smoky Mountains Wild Fire

My entry tonight has more of a somber tone rather than my usual sassy/smart-assy. I  live within an hour’s driving distance of Gatlinburg in the Smoky Mountains where the terrible, deadly, and destructive wild fires occurred in November of 2016. I happened to be spending the day with my best friend for her birthday celebration in the mountains the day of the fires, and although it’s been almost three months since they happened, I couldn’t bring myself to go up there until this past week. I’ve seen the horrific videos and pictures via news and social media that the rest of America has seen…but there’s something about actually going to the scenes that really pulls at your heart strings. When you stand there in the aftermath you really start to breathe it in. I am one that had been repeatedly praying for the mountains and its animals since the first day the wild fires began. The circumstances latched onto my heart and engulfed my soul. As I said, the day of the fires, I was in the mountains…although I was in Pigeon Forge at the foot of the mountains rather than up in them. I remember driving on the interstate in a city an hour away seeing what looked like snow flying through the air and hitting my best friend’s wind shield. We knew it couldn’t be snow, but had no idea what it actually was. It wasn’t until we arrived in the mountains and it was falling heavily from the sky that we both realized it was ashes. The ashes were blowing that far away making all of East Tennessee look like it was snowing. I tried to push it out of my head and joined the crowd of eager visitors enjoying themselves at The Island. I stood in line to ride the Sky Wheel and remember talking to the lady operating the ride. She was an older lady and she seemed legitimately concerned. She told us that some of the previous wheel riders had claimed to see the fires burning from their view at the top of the wheel. Then, almost clairvoyantly, she began to express her concerns about the rising winds that were on their way that evening. It was eerie, and to be honest, I had chills thinking about it. But, none of us could really know what was actually going to happen on that November night. I rode the wheel and peeked out through the glass windows at the top of the wheel just to see if I could see the fires she had mentioned. I could not. I thought perhaps that was a good sign. Maybe the fires were dying out, or maybe they weren’t very big. All of these thoughts raced through my head momentarily until I pushed them aside, hopeful to not let the worry consume me and ruin my “day of fun”. I feel sick about this now. I wish I could go back and scream from the top of the ferris wheel “Everyone leave town” and hope that it would echo and ring throughout the mountains. But, I didn’t. How could I have known what was coming, even with the frightening opinion of the ride operator. How could anyone know? I spent the rest of the afternoon eating pizza and frolicking around the mountains with my best friend and her baby grandson. As late afternoon drew near, I headed  back to my home….an hour away…safe in the Tennessee valley. That night I read a tweet telling everyone in Gatlinburg to get out, the city was on fire! The high evening winds had blown the fire that way and was rapidly spreading. We were still in a terrible drought and all types of open fires had been banned, even in my city, for weeks. All it took was a drought, two juveniles, and high winds to ‘spark’ the devastation. All night long I followed the news and prayed to God. People were trapped in a burning hotel, houses on the mountain were on fire, businesses were engulfed, and people were trying to flee for their lives. I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed. The fire crept up mightily behind the aquarium on the Gatlinburg strip that was filled with hundreds of live aquatic animals. My stomach was in knots as I thought about those poor, innocent animals that were probably going to die. I prayed to God to for a miracle to spare those animals and the people inside of that hotel. He listened to that prayer. The people were rescued at the last minute and the fire miraculously had stopped right behind the aquarium and never touched the building. I had not slept a wink that night because I was too sick and anxious. After hearing the news of the people and animals spared, I started to feel better. But, later in the week we would learn that other lives were not so lucky. Children, elderly, vacationers, locals…many of them perished that night. Along with pets and wild animals. I was so heartbroken for this community that is a second home to me. I knew I couldn’t do much, but I wanted to do SOMETHING. Many charities (local and out-of-state) began collecting donations and money. The survivors that were fortunate enough to live, but lost their homes, had NOTHING. I gathered bags of clothes from my household and went to the dollar tree to purchase necessary items (along with help from my mom). For weeks I mourned for and with the community. Now, as I said, almost three months have passed. Standing there in the aftermath of those fires, I still felt small and helpless. I felt as small as a pebble resting on a mountainside. I imagined in my head what it must have been like for those running for their lives, walls of flames surrounding them, as they left behind their homes not knowing if it would still be standing if/when they returned. I stood among the rubble knowing that once, not long ago, it had been someone’s home…or business. I began to seek out any sign that would show me that once there was life in those ashes. The inanimate objects that remained, painted that harsh truth. A bicycle, a chair, dishes, a filing cabinet, a truck…all that had been consumed by the fire, yet remained. The basement bricks that were still standing though the rest of the building had burned to ashes. Life had been there. Joy had been there. I decided to take photos. I took lots. Not to remember the tragedy, but to remember what the Smoky Mountains had been through, as a reminder that it would rise again beautifully, even with its scars.

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