I woke up early on a recent Sunday morning to the familiar rattling of my cell phone.
I shook the cobwebs away and reached out, wondering what vastly important fantasy football alert I had just received. Or maybe Facebook had randomly decided to tell me that some rando friend had just posted for the first time in a while and Mark Zuckerburg thought I should know.
Instead, I was met with an image that quickly grabbed my attention.
It was a structure fire in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The pictures showed flame and smoke rising above a building that was instantly familiar, but that I couldn’t quite place.
The Gatlinburg Fire Department had crews on the scene and Gatlinburg firefighters – joined by firefighters from the Pigeon Forge Fire Department as well as Sevierville and Pittman Center fire departments – were battling the blaze.
Gatlinburg officials had ordered the sidewalks closed and were rerouting motorists to and from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Gatlinburg Bypass.
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Is Gatlinburg prepared for wildfires?
The City of Gatlinburg, Tenn., built along a road planned long ago before tourists or even cars, isn’t exactly well prepared for this sort of thing.
If that block of Parkway is shut down, you can access River Road – which in a case like this may also be compromised by the fire – or go around to the Bypass, which isn’t exactly convenient.
We’re all still a little bit skittish when we see such a blaze. First of all, a fire in that section of the Gatlinburg Parkway can quickly spread. There are businesses close by that could carry fire from one building to the next, causing extensive damage.
Secondly, we all remember the terrible fire which started up near the Chimney Tops in the national park and then – in a wild windstorm – swept across the drought-stricken dry mountains.
We’re currently at the edge of another drought, so a major fire in Gatlinburg makes us all nervous.
Was anyone hurt in the Oct. 2022 fire?
It isn’t completely clear. The remains of Joe Martin Bates, 54, were found while Gatlinburg authorities searched the debris, according to Public Information Officer Seth Butler.
However, the cause of his passing has not been publicly confirmed.
What businesses were affected in the fire?
Cafe 420, Puckers Sports Bar, Gifts of Gatlinburg and China Bazaar all were located in the block of businesses in the 740 section of Parkway.
Most – if not all – of the businesses were burned to the ground and deemed a total loss.
How long did it take for authorities to put out the fire?
Firefighters were still battling hot spots the next day.
The Southbound sidewalk in the immediate area was closed to pedestrians from Johnny Rockets to the Gatlinburg Inn while contractors worked to secure the area for the demolition of the damaged structure.
Gatlinburg Trolley services were also suspended.
What caused the Gatlinburg fire of Oct. 2022?
The cause of the fire remains under investigation by the Gatlinburg Police Department and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Officials have been publicly adamant that the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Gatlinburg officials have noted the Tennessee Arson Hotline is 1-800-762-3017, but that is pretty well standard procedure in cases such as this.
Is this the worst fire in Sevier County history?
I don’t know that we want to get into ranking such things, but while the 2022 fire was tragic, it doesn’t compare to the 2016 fires.
Here is a list of significant fires in Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas from the last few decades, listed chronologically:
7. Downtown Gatlinburg Parkway fire (Oct. 2022)
We don’t know what caused Mr. Bates’ passing, but the loss of life in any manner is a tragic thing.
Businesses can be rebuilt – even if it takes time.
The face of Gatlinburg will never quite be the same after this fire, but worse, the friends and family of Mr. Bates’ lives will never be the same.
6. Hatcher Mountain – Indigo Lane wildfire (March 2022)
Wears Valley’s mountains have caught fire multiple times in my life. The most significant may have been the fires in early 2022.
Even with two separate fires burning, the damage was bad, but officials averted tragedy in a few close calls including a helicopter coming in for an emergency landing while trying to douse the flames and a group of volunteer firefighters who were nearly trapped in the shifting blaze.
Ultimately, the fires damaged over 200 structures and burned nearly 2,500 acres.
5. Thomas Divide wildfire (March 2022)
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials reported the 960-acre Thomas Divide Complex Fire in late March of 2022, burning at about the same time as the Hatcher Mountain Fire under similar conditions.
Suppression efforts with approximately 70 personnel participating as part of ground crews, engine crews and air operations established control lines around the Stone Pile fire section and crews monitored the remaining burning fuels in that area.
While the fire burned a portion of the national park, it was contained therein.
4. Red Roof Factory Outlet Mall fire (Oct. 2020)
At one time the Red Roof Factory Outlet mall was THE shopping destination in the region. As newer developments came along, the Red Roof fell in quality.
In October 2020, one of the shops – Smoky Mountain Liquidation Outlet – caught fire and burned. No one was injured and the fire was contained to that shop.
A teen was charged with arson in the case.
3. Gatlinburg wildfires (Nov. 2016)
We weren’t strangers to wildfires back in 2016. It was so dry that winter, we’d all seen fires in several places throughout Tennessee. And in our history, fires on the mountain are not uncommon. In fact, I can think of three or four times the mountains along Wears Valley burned, including earlier this year. But we’d never seen anything like this.
The fires at the Chimney Tops had been burning for days – allegedly started by a pair of juveniles. Smoke was in the air – but again – that’s not uncommon. What was uncommon was the windstorm that arrived like a hurricane and blew that fire down into the valleys while knocking down power lines and starting several more.
Local officials were ill-prepared for what came next, a nightmarish, hellish wave of fire that came closer to taking the whole dang town than anyone is comfortable admitting.
The heroics of regional firefighters who rushed to the city’s aid combined with some merciful rain helped prevent the fires from being worse.
Ultimately, 14 people perished and millions upon millions of dollars of property were destroyed. It was one of the worst disasters in Tennessee’s history.
Officials have worked hard to improve preparedness and communication in the wake of the fire. Hopefully, they’ll never have to truly put that improved preparedness to the test.
2. Three Bears General Store Pigeon Forge fire (Sept. 2008)
The popular Three Bears Gift Shop – which touts live bears for tourists to feed – was destroyed in the blaze in 2008.
When firefighters arrived early in the morning, flames were shooting through the roof. Luckily, none of the bears – or any people – were injured in the fire.
1. The Gatlinburg Space Needle fire (July 1992)
In 1992, a fire destroyed Ripley’s Gatlinburg Museum which was, at the time, located at the base of the needle. The needle suffered extensive damage and was closed for three years. The fire gutted the entire city block and closed a dozen businesses.
Several firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and exhaustion and tourists got involved by carrying fire hoses and helping battle the blaze.
However, no one was seriously injured. The fire allegedly began in a neon sign above a T-shirt shop.
Ripley’s has caught fire twice since it reopened both caused by faulty light fixtures. The 2000 fire caused no damage while the 2003 fire mostly caused damage to the building exterior.
Do you recall fires in the Gatlinburg area? Tell us about your experience in the comments.