December 16, 2016
The largest wildfire that Tennessee has seen in a hundred years rampaged through the Smoky Mountains region in Eastern Tennessee, traveling quickly and leaving few homes and businesses untouched. Over 17,000 acres were scorched, 10,000 people from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge were without power, and Red Cross volunteers and firefighters are working hard to help survivors who are now without homes or food. There have been fourteen confirmed deaths; all but one body has been identified.
The fire is suspected to have been started by two minors, who have been charged with aggravated arson (and may get a life sentence), on Monday, November 28th in Sevier County. The dry conditions and high wind speeds assisted in spreading the flames across the county. Smoke hung in the air over the whole region, causing reduced visibility and forcing citizens to evacuate. Thankfully, rain on Tuesday, December 6th helped to calm the flames.
Multiple cabins that are a part of the famous Dollywood, housed in Pigeon Forge, were damaged or destroyed, but none of the attractions were touched by the flames. Dolly Parton, celebrity resident of Sevier County, feels a strong connection to the people in her hometown, so the Dollywood Foundation will donate $1,000 a month for six months to each affected family to help citizens who lost their homes. Parton also held a benefit concert Tuesday, December 13th that was broadcasted live across the country, raising over $9 million.
The widely-known Ripley’s Aquarium was forced to leave their 10,000 animals as employees fled the danger zone. Many workers wanted to stay to ensure the safety of the creatures, but they could not because of the eviction order. Thankfully, the Aquarium remained intact and the animals are all alright. The evacuation notice in Pigeon Forge was lifted Wednesday, November 30th, and Gatlinburg reopened to the general public on Friday, December 9th.
On Thursday President Obama called the wildfire a disaster, and families from Sevier County should receive federal funds to help with housing and food (he is considering including people from the surrounding counties in the grant).
The best way to help is to donate to the Red Cross or Gatlinburg Relief Fund to provide food, water, shelter, and medical attention to injured and homeless residents.