Wildfires sweep through GSMNP & Gatlinburg – loss of lives, property and wildlife

GSMNP tweet - wildfire2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. National Parks across the country have been celebrating and having record-setting attendance.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has the distinction of being the most visited of the 59 national parks, with more than 10 million visitors annually. The second most visited park is the Grand Canyon with 4.6 million visitors annually.

I’m a big fan of the Smokies, and I recently completed the Hike 100 Challenge. GSMNP Superintendent Cassius Cash made the challenge last winter, and Dec. 8 was announced as the date for the celebration ceremony for those who reached the goal.

As a blogger for the Friends of the Smokies blog, I try to keep up on activities in the Smokies through Twitter by following the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (@GSMNP), Friends of the Smokies (@SmokiesFriends) and other Smokies hikers (who I often find with the #Hike100 hashtag).

tweet-dolly-smokyA tweet from @GSMNP on Nov. 14 alerted me to the wildfire near the top of the Chimney Tops Trail, one of the most popular trails in the Smokies. I was a volunteer for a day with the Trails Forever crew that spent three years restoring the trail to improve the trail for the thousands who hike the trail.

As wildfires continued to burn in the Park, Dolly Parton filmed a public service announcement with Smoky the Bear to encourage people not to burn leaves or have campfires. The video was tweeted by the Park on Nov. 27.

On Monday, Nov. 28, the winds increased to 40 mph with gusts over 70 mph. Park officials closed roads and trails as the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, which had started on Nov. 23, spread due to drought conditions and extreme wind. The tweets from the Park showed the spread of the fires, and the images in the tweets changed from smoky to filled with flames.

tweet-flamesThroughout Monday, I read updates on Twitter, including the reporting of people in the area. By Monday evening embers were carried for miles, and those embers plus downed powerlines led to the wildfire spreading through Gatlinburg and to the outskirts of Pigeon Forge.

Twitter included photos and videos from people who were fleeing the wildfire. Some were tourists and some were local residents.

I was thankful for the courage and skill of the wildfire fighters. Fire fighting in the forest is a special challenge, as firefighters often have to hike several miles into the wood to get to the fire location – and carrying their firefighting gear, including chainsaws and shovels.

tweetLast summer, I had the opportunity to learn more about wildfire fighters when working with an intern who aspired to go into firefighting on a blog post about wildland firefighting.

Fourteen people died as a result of the wildfire and more than 1,700 homes and businesses have been damaged or destroyed.

Dollywood was safe. Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg lost two residence halls but all other building were undamaged. The nearby school, which initial reporting said was destroyed, was undamaged. News stories included that the 10,000+ animals in Ripley’s Aquarium were safe.

Rain fell, the wind subdued, and the firefighters persisted. The worst of the fire (so we hope) has passed.

The Park Service announce that the fire got within a mile of the LeConte Lodge, and the Elkmont Campground and Historic Districts were not damaged by the fire.

Those of us who know and love the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are concerned about the thousands of animals in the Park – bears, deer, small mammals, birds and amphibians. (The Smokies is “The Salamander Capital of the World.”) Some could outrun or fly out of the fire, but many couldn’t.

fire-reportWe’re also concerned about the fire damage to the trees and plantlife and the streams and the fish. The fires covered more than 15,600 acres in the Park.

Park officials closed all facilities in the park on Nov. 29. The Park Headquarters, located on the outskirts of Gatlinburg, was without power and phone.

On Nov. 30, the Park turned the fire management over to a management team of federal and state interagency team members (the Southern Area Type I Incident Command Team) that collaboratively manages wildland fire and natural disaster relief efforts.

As I checked Twitter in writing this post, I read The Chimney Tops 2 Fire Update, just posted on the GSMNP’s Twitter account (Nov. 30, 8:15 p.m.) states: “The wildfire was determined to be human-caused and is currently under investigation.”

That makes the tragedy of the loss of lives, property and wildlife even worse!

The update includes that 22 engines, seven helicopters, four bulldozers and a total of 285 people have been involved so far in fighting the fire.

Friends of the Smokies is one of the organizations accepting tax-deductible donations to help with wildfire costs.

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