On Monday night, like many East Tennesseans, I watched in horror as flames engulfed downtown Gatlinburg and roared toward Pigeon Forge, creating an unprecedented nightmare situation for our area. The fire that began the night before near Chimney Tops in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was stoked by heavy winds, with some gusts reaching 70-80 mph. As the wind sent limbs crashing onto my roof, I mentally willed the weatherman’s green satellite blob closer to where drenching rain was needed. I saw harrowing footage passed around on Facebook that showed residents fleeing, and I could tell that the news crews were having a difficult time reporting the scope of the situation.
My heart ached for the community just over the mountain that was now living in fear, panic, shock and desperation. There’s nothing like feeling powerless to do anything but passively watch a tragedy from afar. At the time I write this, three confirmed fatalities have been reported, but I know that the dust hasn’t fully settled yet. In the wee hours, I remembered times I’ve visited Little Greenbrier School and the Walker Sisters Place, and I considered that these and other irreplaceable historic structures in the park might only live on in memory. I thought of all the people left homeless at the beginning of winter and the hard economic times ahead for them and small business owners. Even though it was later reported that Arrowmont had only suffered partial damage to its campus, at the time news reports said it had burned to the ground, and I thought of the times I’ve been there for exhibits or classes and felt a palpable comfort surrounded by art and artists. I also considered the deep irony that the current exhibit, Piecing Together a Changing Planet, features fiber arts highlighting climate change in America’s national parks. Isn’t that at least part of what’s going on?
Thirteen days ago from the time I write this, my home community in Walland experienced a wildfire scare, but now seeing the enormity of the situation in Gatlinburg, I was able to grasp just how lucky we were. What we experienced was terrifying, but it never descended into chaos—my family’s experience in no way compares to the Level 3 State of Emergency in the next county.
Read the full story in Knoxville Mercury.