Lonely Planet Writer

East Tennessee is open for business and ready to welcome visitors after last year's fires

One year after a series of deadly fires ravaged East Tennessee, including Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and parts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the region is ready to welcome visitors for one of its busiest seasons.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee Winterfest Lights shortly after sunset. Image by Jerry Whaley/Getty Images

The fires began on the popular Chimney Tops trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on 23 November, 2016, and spread to neighboring Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on 28 November. Local first responders worked to contain and extinguish the fires, but dry conditions and strong winds made it difficult work. In the end, more than 17,000 acres were burned, 14 people died and nearly 200 were injured.

The Sugarlands Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains. Image by Danita Delimont

“As a community, everyone rallied together to bring hope and support,”  says Amanda Mountan, of Ole Smoky Moonshine. In conjunction with the city of Gatlinburg and other local partners, Ole Smoky hosted a benefit concert for those affected by the fires. More than a dozen musical acts performed, including the Zac Brown Band, and the event raised over US$280,000. Local legend Dolly Parton also rallied behind the regions, raising US$9 million in a December telethon.

The support helped: One year later, all major tourist attractions in the region, including the popular Ober Gatlinburg chairlifts, are open for business. Within the 522,076-acres of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, only two trails remain closed to visitors. They are expected to open in 2018. ‘Forest recovery in the Smokies happens quickly,’ explains Great Smoky National Park representative Dana Soehn. There are only a few overlooks where any damage can be spotted, she notes, including the Carlos Campbell Overlook: ‘From this vantage point, it is easy to see how the wind-driven fire was spread through the air from ridge top to ridge top.’

The most dramatic change is to the Chimney Top Trail, where two teenagers allegedly started the blaze. ‘The peaks burned intensely, leaving no vegetation behind,’ says Soehn. ‘The extreme winds brought down large trees near the peaks that upturned roots, soil and rock.’ Most of the trail has reopened, but the top quarter-mile will remain closed to visitors while experts monitor the effect the changing seasons will have on the eroding peak. ‘If in the future the ground is determined to be safe and stabilized enough for sustainable trail construction, the park will consider trail rehabilitation,’ says Soehn.

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Image by Stephen Saks/Getty Images

Though most of the community has rebounded, the fires are far from forgotten by locals. In Pigeon Forge, a tribute wall was unveiled in Patriot Park to commemorate the efforts of the first responders. Nashville artist Josh Ford designed a ten foot by ten foot stainless steel wall etched with images of the local landscape and first responders, and the names of those who offered support to the community. It’s titled  ‘For Those Who Answered the Call.’   “This tribute wall will forever represent every person in every city and town who thought of us in our time of need,” says Pigeon Forge City Manager Earlene Teaster.

Of course, visitors also have the power to help out this heavily visited region, where tourism is an important part of the local economy. “Gatlinburg has always thrived on tourism, so people visiting and enjoying everything our town has to offer will help support our community,” says Mountan.