The Real Story Behind the Gatlinburg Fires of 2016 as Told by a Local

A crew from Samaritan's Purse assists with clean up after the 2016 Gatlinburg fire (archive photo by Dr. Candi Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

A crew from Samaritan's Purse assists with clean up after the 2016 Gatlinburg fire (archive photo by Dr. Candi Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Strong winds and communication issues were to blame, according to officials

I remember it well. As someone who has called these mountains home for the last 35 years, it was a devastating event to witness. Years have passed, but the scars remain. Large swaths of the forest burned in November of 2016. Of course, some scars heal eventually. As more years pass, more green growth will envelop the deadwood. Other scars. however, stay with us. Gatlinburg and Sevier County burned Monday night, Nov. 28, 2016.

Extraordinarily dry conditions, combined with a wind storm with hurricane-like power and a problematic fire in a hard-to-reach spot at the Chimney Tops trail on the Wednesday prior, created hell on one of the prettiest places on God’s Earth. The unholy concoction of conditions created a perfect storm. It was a screaming monster of flame and heat and terror that moved swiftly and unpredictably.

The Gatlinburg fires of 2016 were tragic for the small tourist town community. The fire began near The Chimney Tops, and wind conditions knocked down power lines and created new fires. The strong winds carried burning embers, and extreme drought conditions also contributed to the disaster. The fire claimed the lives of 14 people and caused millions in damages.

Damages and losses

The wildfire caught local and federal park officials unprepared. The fire claimed the lives of 14 people, injured an estimated 190 people and caused millions in damages. It affected an estimated 2,400 buildings. It was one of the largest natural disasters in Tennessee’s history. There’s a video filmed by a man named Michael Luciano of him and Anthony Fulton’s desperate escape from Chalet Village. It’s white-knuckle stuff like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie. The 14-minute video, embedded above, shows both sides of the road glowing yellow, orange and red. Burning embers and ash fill the air and downed trees threaten to trap the men. Along the way, they pass countless cabins and chalets, fully engulfed and burning like kindling. Simply watching the video is harrowing. I can’t imagine living it.

building after fire damage with hollow van
The fire damaged more than 2,400 buildings (archive photo by Dr. Candi Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What really caused the fire

Accusations were abundant. When two juveniles were arrested on December 7 and charged with aggravated arson, many people assumed they had the answer. However, by the time a federal judge dropped the charges six months later, some had lost focus on the fire. Others were angry that the boys would not face punishment, and subsequent civil lawsuits were filed against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Of course, because of the size of the fire and the damage it inflicted, the fire was big news. With that interest came an amazing outpouring of financial support and, of course, a natural interest in what caused the disaster.

In the months and years following the fires, a fuller picture of what caused the fire emerged. Even if investigators could conclusively prove the boys started the Chimney Tops fire, it was the windstorm that proved to be the driving force behind the disaster. Communication problems complicated the issue for local officials, who were ill-prepared for the level of hell approaching. The following is a rough timeline of what occurred, starting a few days before.

a pile of burnt debris after the 2016 gatlinburg fire
A pile of burnt debris from the 2016 Gatlinburg fire (archive photo by Dr. Candi Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

A timeline of events

It began at The Chimney Tops, where a fire had been burning for several days. Officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park determined it was in a spot too difficult to fight due to the dangerous and steep terrain. Crews set a 400-acre containment area in which the fire would be allowed to burn and planned to let the fire burn itself out. But, the autumn of 2016 in East Tennessee had been exceptionally dry. The region was in the midst of a drought. Fires of various sizes burned all over East Tennessee. The National Park Service (NPS) monitored the Chimney Tops fire. It was being treated as a normal fire. However, it was no normal fire.

The high wind gusts up to 87 mph, in addition to creating a firestorm, knocked down power lines and created new fires. The strong winds carried burning embers, sparking still more hotspots and increasing the spread of the fire. Extreme drought conditions meant there was a massive amount of highly flammable fuel throughout the region.

Meanwhile, back in Gatlinburg, life continued. Tourists, locals and officials were mindful of the fire, which brought smoke and ash into the city. Still, there was little concern the fire would reach the city. Models provided by the Pigeon Forge Fire Department indicated it would take 19 hours for the fire to reach the city limits. In actuality, the fire reached Gatlinburg’s city limits in two hours.

fire damage on the mountain in gatlinburg with construction crews and trucks
The 2016 fire was one of the worst natural disasters in Tennessee’s history (archive photo by Dr. Candi Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What went wrong

First responders reacted heroically. Calls for mutual aid went out across the region. The quick actions of many of the area’s firefighters, police and EMS workers saved lives, but often they were operating without enough information. An independently commissioned report by the ABS listed some communication successes – such as the call for mutual aid – but listed six major communication issues as well.

First of all, radio communications overloaded the Sevier County radio system at times. Secondly, communication between departments became an issue as a result of a lack of interoperability of radio frequencies and channel allocation. Also, communications were hampered due to the fire intensity and high winds. Additionally, critical communications links between the City of Gatlinburg EOC and TEMA were significantly interrupted and contributed to TEMA not sending the requested IPAWS message to evacuate Gatlinburg. Another problem was the lack of sufficient interoperability among city, county, state and federal agencies which created critical obstacles to direct communications. And finally, the original EOC and other offices of city officials had to be evacuated to another location in Gatlinburg.

The Gatlinburg Fire Chief, in court documents, laid much of the blame on the NPS. “By the time local officials were informed about the true danger, the Chimney Tops 2 fire was unstoppable,” Greg Miller’s statement reads. “A lack of early notice was the most critical failure of all.” The City of Gatlinburg did not, at that time, employ a full-time information officer nor have a crisis communication plan. Instead, the city contracted for limited PIO services with the Convention Center and Visitors Bureau. That person’s attempt to keep the public notified through traditional means was severely hampered by power outages from the fire and storm.

fire damage after 2016 in gatinburg
The 2016 fire resulted in millions of dollars of damage (archive photo by Dr. Candi Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Ultimately, we can’t go back in time. The key is to learn from those mistakes and prepare for the future. Gatlinburg is a strong town. But we will never forget the lost lives. The legal battles continue as of this writing in 2023. Those affected by the fire sued the government in 2018, alleging negligence by NPS employees. A judge last year dismissed the lawsuits, but the legal battles continue today as they move forward with a make-or-break hearing, according to WBIR.

After the fires, Dolly Parton stepped up and organized massive fundraising. Her My People Fund promised each family which had lost its primary residence in the fires $1,000 a month for the next five months. When Parton arrived to help dole out the final payments, she brought the nearly 900 families an unexpected bonus. This included another $5,000 each for a total of $10,000. The creation of the Mountain Tough organization would provide ongoing support for those affected over the next three years. The pledge to fund it would be at least $3 million. Dollywood, located in Pigeon Forge, was unscathed. However, the company lost some cabins in the fire.

a line of cars parked to help clean up efforts after fire in 2016
Clean-up efforts line up to assist in clearing debris (archive photo by Dr. Candi Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

Do you remember the Gatlinburg fires of 2016? Let us know in the comments.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

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37 thoughts on “The Real Story Behind the Gatlinburg Fires of 2016 as Told by a Local”

  1. I live here and I remember that evening eating at Henderson Chapel Baptist Church and see and smelling the woods on fire
    And knew the Reeds met them a week before the horrible fire and it broke my heart
    It also came out that the boys didn’t set the fire it was the Rangers they lost control of the situation
    And tourist and Residents of this Parish

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  2. I too live here. Was admiring Gods handy work just today! Birds, Deer, etc. The G-burg fires remind me of the ole adage, “We are from the Government, trust us, we are here to help. We have the situation completely under control .” Nuf Said!

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  3. The very early decision by the NPS to let the fire “burn itself out” was one of the major contributors to the size and scale of the destruction. At the point it was first reported, the fire was approximately 4 acres. Then, the following day, with high winds in the forecast and a 40 acre fire, they doubled-down on that terrible decision. The 3rd day, with 400 acres now burning, the winds had arrived and the situation was deemed “too risky” to contend with. All of 3 of these decisions were made by the NPS in the midst of the worst drought in 100 years. All of the golf courses in Sevier County had allowed their grass to turn brown because of the expense to continue to water it: that’s the type of drought. In 30+ years of visiting and investing in Gatlinburg, I had never seen brown golf courses. There were hundreds of contributing fires caused by downed power lines due to the high winds on days 2, 3, 4. Did the boys set the Chimney Tops II fire? Probably. Did the NPS make the situation 1,000x worse by ignorance, arrogance and inaction? Absolutely.

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  4. I’m curious to know if the NPS was sued by the families who lost loved ones and the businesses who suffered damage or loss.

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  5. The KNP Complex Fire that devastated Sequoia National Park and surrounding lands in September-October 2021 had much in common with the Gatlinburg disaster…chief among the commonalities is Superintendant Clay Jordan. Jordan and his crew let the KNP fire burn for five days before doing anything.

    The result was six weeks of AQIs above 600 for those of us who lived just downhill from the Park…six weeks of living under evacuation orders, 80 years of life packed into one car…lands my family had lived on, loved and cared for over five generations reduced to a heartbreaking deathscape.

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  6. I live in Seymour off 411 Hwy. The night of the Gatlinburg fire the entire view of Bluff Mountain was lit up by the fire. The common assumption among long tome Smokey Mt. residents was that it was too green and lush here for there ever to be a fire like are seen out west. But the few years before the fire I remember reading reports by experts saying that the Smokey Mts. were overdue for a bad fire because of all the underbrush accumulated over many years. This prompted me to start cleaning up my small patch of woods on my property. So I wasn’t surprised by the fire itself. However, the speed at which it spread and the damage to human and animal life was shocking. Lesson learned for a homeowner…keep brush 50-100 yards away from the house…clean up flammable debris…never stack firewood next to house…have water hoses easily accessible…have an evacuation plan…and value human life above material possessions.

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  7. I was there on vacation at the time of the fire very scary where we stayed burned down so heartbreaking and devastating to see.

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  8. I was born and raised in Blount County, a neighbor to Sevier County. A lot of my life was spent in the Smokey Mountains. I wasn’t there when this fire happened but I watched on tv news. It was truly devastating. When I read this article I cried again. I spent many days and nights in tears for the people that were my neighbors. I live in Oregon now but my heart will always belong to the Smokey Mountains of East Tennessee.

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  9. I had just been there stayed at river Terrace. On our way there we were re routed in NC. It was so many fires because of drought. Crushed when l saw and heard of so much damage. Especially saddened by loss of life. Glad things are back l love it there.

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  10. I remember very good. Our house was on Cliff Branch Road in Chalet Village. Thank God we weren’t there.

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  11. We were supposed to be there that weekend but went the weekend before. My heart broke for the people there. Tears flowed as we watched it unfold on the news. We could only pray for the people. God bless the Smoky Mountains.

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  12. I knew something was wrong, really wrong, when the winds changed. I had heard about the fires in the Smokies extensively living in the valley where I do. The day the sky turned red and yellow, the wind howled, and almost the whole East Tennessee valley started to smell the burning I knew that the night and morning would bring massive death and destruction. Family and friends were worried about what direction the fires were going. It was a sad and stressful time for East Tennessee. We were scared and now there are still many people who are angry. It will be a long time before the scars of the Chimney Tops Fires AKA The Great Fire heal.

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  13. We were there shortly after and it was so sad. We had friends who were there during, I remember it well. I won’t place blame but I sure hate it happened. Such a beautiful place in all of God’s creation to have to go through that. I pray for the folks who lost life, God bless as you still recover.

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  14. That was my great nephew, Tony, driving the truck and his best friend, Michael, shooting the video. I remember texting my niece to see if he was okay and she said I was just talking to him and he said…we have to leave and hung up. The video is of them leaving. I thank God that they survived. Makes me sick to my stomach seeing the video. For one reason or another their house was spared, but all of them around them were destroyed.

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  15. Our family was in the fire. We lost both my aunt & uncle in the fire and by the grace of God my 3 cousins survived after time spent in the burn unit at Vanderbilt. A time our family will never forgot. Such a tragedy.

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  16. We are frequent visitors to Gatlinburg, and had left town the morning of the fire. The four days prior, the air had been full of smoke and ash, even in downtown Gatlinburg. We had been assured that there was no danger, and everything seemed to be business as usual. Once we had arrived home in Georgia, we turned on the news to see that the fire was threatening the entire area. It was shocking and upsetting. I was so glad to see the community pulling themselves back together. It was devastating, but little Gatlinburg really showed what the community is made of!

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  17. Those boys caused the Chimney fires and video taped it. They were the cause and it was dropped because of the position of one of their fathers. I mean, really? They should have been severely punished!

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  18. I was raised on Baskins Creek Road and am very disappointed at the way everything was organized. My father Myrl Carr said he didn’t get a phone call or a knock on the door for a warning. He almost lost his life in that fire. My family is “Old Family” in Gatlinburg. The total lost of homes was 8. We were lucky everyone still had their health. I want to know if communications were so badly interrupted why did Ham-Radios not be a main communication. 10 meters to 160 meters can talk all over the world and you DO NOT need towers. I am so disappointed in the way this was handled.

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  19. Those boys still started the initial fire. They should have been held accountable to some degree. Them all brush fire caused a lifetime of pain for some including death.

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  20. We were in Chalet Village when the area was engulfed in flame and smoke. Lucky we had a couple P100 full face respirators from painting project we had the year before so that made it to where we could keep as much sense about us as possible in the choas. We ended up driving in a panic but managed to got out of there by the skin of our teeth. Our car was basically trashed, but our lives were spared. We ran over a pretty thick tree and almost got stuck on the way but managed to reverse out of there, when we reversed we hit a tree with the rear of the car but got unstuck from the front, luckily our bags didnt deploy and the car was still operable. We saw a disabled car that wasnt so lucky and I got out of the car and was able to get them safely to our vehicle and out of there, and let them use one of the respirators.

    The video posted by Michael Luciano was incredible because compared to us they were rather calm, I couldnt imagine being calm enough to hold a camera. I didnt want to watch that video Michael Luciano posted for a long time because I had nightmares about how terrified I was and also the hopeless feeling during the ordeal. I thought for sure we werent making it out. After watching his video I almost feel like I had PTSD, but it gives me more perspective on how lucky we were.

    Those boys who started the fires should have been sent to adult prison for the lives they took by starting those fires.but, I guess when your daddy sucks up to certain people and does certain things you can get away with anything. No good family thats for sure. The whole family should be in prison.

    Our heart goes out to the people who lost their lives. May their souls rest with the Lord.

    I would recommend people living in areas with any chance of wildfire to invest in a quality full face respirator that will filter smoke and fine particles. Make sure to get full face because that smoke will have your eyes burning and without eyesight your chances of making it out go down drastically. The smoke is what will kill you.

    I hope this never happens again, but if it does hopefully they will have early enough warning and be able to evacuate everyone safely.

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  21. Roger, Janet,
    Just FYI,
    According to Wiki:
    “On May 24, 2018, a federal lawsuit was filed against the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on behalf of victims seeking damages for the failure to stop the Chimney Tops 2 fire before it left the park.[35] U.S. District Judge Ronnie Greer ruled September 8, 2020 that the lawsuit against the United States could go forward on a claim of failure to warn under the Federal Tort Claims Act before a judge.”

    Source: Wikipedia : 2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires”

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  22. My husband and I were on vacation. The smoke was getting thick but all we heard on TV was that it was supposed to rain and help put our some of the fires. Evacuations were called. It was getting darker and I had just taken off my shoes. Husband taking a shower, when he came out and had just gotten dressed the phone wrung. I heard the guy at the front desk yelling “GET OUT AND GET OUT NOW!” I had already got packed up because we were checking out in the morning heading to Cherokee to check in at Harrahs. We grabbed everything and headed out the door. We stayed at the end near Ober gatlinburg tram way. The scene is now buried in my mind. The whole mountain across the river was on fire. We could see the chair lift chairs hanging right above the fire. We ran , loaded up the van and was told there was only one way out and that was the road that goes past the Alamo restaurant and towards the Arts & crafts area.
    5 lanes of traffic ALL headed the same towards 40. Bumper to bumper. We made it as far as the Alamo restaurant when it caught on fire. It was getting worse to breathe. We call our parents and told them , we loved them as we didn’t know how it was going to end. That was the worst part. The fire department was up ahead about a half a mile cutting through fallen trees to cut a one lane path to get people out. Once through that spot there were several trees that they had cut so we had to go really slow all the way to 40. It took us 2 hours to travel a 30 minute drive. We also saw Several cabins on fire. This is a Very true story that I hope to never ever repeat. It took 3
    detailed cleanings to ever get the fire smell out of the vehicle. Took us several weeks to get the smoke smell out of our hair. The luggage was a lost cause because we couldn’t get the smell out. I still get panic attacks when I smell smoke and don’t know where it’s coming from.
    But the mountains still keep calling us back… and I left my shoes….

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  23. I happened to stumble across this video, and it brought back memories. I was a wild land firefighter based out of Oregon at the time, and our crew was sent to Gatlinburg to help fight the Chimney Tops 2 fire. We obviously arrived after much of the damage was done, and primary were sent there for search and rescue and clean up duty. I will never forget, and hope all is well again in this beautiful region!

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  24. We were not in fire but we had got a cabin this year May 2022 and was surprise by a bear sitting at the foot of cabin eating the food out of garbage he got out because we had lock it my girls were on back in hot tub and heard noises look and over porch and saw a black bear eating good …i was scared but not my girls I still going back next year but not way at the top of hill..if God willing. be safe everyone

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  25. I haven’t lived in Tennessee in the past nine years, but it’s my home state, so I was definitely scarred and heartbroken when this whole event happened. Volunteer Firefighters from Kentucky were being sent down to the Smokies, and many fires in Kentucky had to be fought by single departments, and even if they weren’t NEARLY as bad as Gatlinburg, it’s still amazing that they managed to fight the fires there too. I remember lying in bed thinking about Gatlinburg. Then around December, I went down to Tennessee with my parents and a sister, and I could see fire just about everywhere. Jellico was burning at the time as well, so, yeah, I got a high quality picture of that. Just enough to scar me. When we got to Knoxville, I would watch it on the news, because my family owns a vacation cabin in Townsend, just two miles from where the Walland fires were burning. Townsend wasn’t hit, thankfully. But when I drove around the Southern end of Sevierville, I looked around and I could see haziness and orange. It was creepy, and I also saw several beat-up looking cars with flaming tires. This video gives me an idea of what the people in those cars went through, and it’s not a pleasant idea, but I am very glad that these people managed to escape. I can’t imagine going through that, and if I did, I wouldn’t be nearly as calm. The teens who caused it should still be in prison, but it’s not like the government really cares anymore.

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  26. We were just there in mid October. The Smokies was our favorite place. By November 14th, my husband suddenly and totally unexpectedly passed away. I was still grieving the loss of my husband when this tragic fire exploded. I would sit and watch the news and just cry. I guess I was being selfish because all I could think was “our” Smokies was on fire! It was just so heartbreaking, I needed to share this with my husband and he wasn’t there! Looking back, I realize my selfishness and feel guilty. I’ve been back for only a three day weekend and it was bittersweet, but I’m going back soon and hope I can feel the same way as I did when I was there with him.
    Thank you Smoky Mtns for being the strong, resilient community you are.

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  27. We have spent so much time up there growing up and more recently we would spend Halloween weekends in a chalet with a HUGE batch of family. We had so many good times that when I heard of this firestorm starting I cloudn’t sleep for days. Thanks to the Newsteam at WBIR TV for posting all the coverage they did. This allowed me to reach some kind of closure. I think those kids shoulda’ [been accountable] but got off SCOT-FREE!!!!!! To this day I stress out over this. Dad should be held responsible also. Just like everything else these days, Where is the parenting?!?!?

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  28. Yes’m I remember it and I remember the pain I felt and the tears also! I thought it was all gone, everything I knew and loved these past 40+ years. And yes, I like most other do believe those kids did start this fire and they should of been [accountable] for it but if it’d not been for their daddy knowing the right person!

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  29. We were in the Cobbly Nob section of Gatliburg decorating our rental cabin for Christmas. Sat. We went to town. It was deserted. A yellow brown haze was everywhere. We were aware that there was a fire burning on Rocky Top. That evening we were on the deck and the winds were fierce. Everytime the wind blew you could see the top of the mountain glow with the stoked fire. Winds were so strong we could barely talk to each other. Then we watched as a transformer fell across the valley from us and started a ground fire which spread to that house and then another house. The fire department was there quickly. In the dark we could see a line of headlights coming down the mountain as everyone evacuated. Then we lost power and evacuated. 321 was stalled for over an hour while they cleared a firetruck with a downed tree on it. We finally made it out of town stopped at a gas station bathroom and met people who had evacuated from the hotel. One lady had a blanket wrapped around her waist as they demanded everyone get out as is. We stayed at my sisters and left fir home in Indiana in the morning. Didn’t know for 24 hours that our cabin was spared. We continue to come to Gatlinburg frequently. There is still rebuilding going on in Cobbly Nob.

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  30. My husband and I had been vacationing in Gatlinburg a week before the fire. We had been to the Smokies many times over the years, and I remember thinking about how dry everything was and how low the creeks were running. We even saw a small forest fire around Maryville on the way in. Regardless, when the news hit of the fire, we were devastated, like most people who love the region. It was a tragic event most certainly for the loss of life, but also for the property impact and the general beauty of the area. We have been back one time since, and it was shocking to see what had been lost, but people were rebuilding. They are resilient in the mountains, and the natural splendor will return in time.

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  31. Whenever there is a wildfire out west, regardless of the conditions which caused it to grow, authorities try to find the person who provided the spark that resulted in fire and losses, and they are held responsible, even if it was simply and accident. In looking at the fire at Gatlinburg, I don’t know if it is because of a coverup that the two youths who are. now adults were never prosecuted, or whether some deal was made with Federal parks and forests departments or what. And this could be a case of old time ways of doing things were people guilty of a tragedy that they had not meant to cause are simply forgiven. But whatever the outcome, it sure fails to live up to current day sensibilities and is an outlier in American Federal Justice.

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  32. That fire was so upsetting to me. I lost my husband in August of 2015. Every year before he died we went to Gatlinburg to celebrate Thanksgiving and our anniversary (Nov. 29). That would have been our week to be there had he not died. I know that area so well and it just broke my heart to see what was happening to our beloved little city. The following Spring I was invited to go back there with my daughter and her children and one of the first things that I did was drive up Ski Mountain Rd. to see if the chalet where we usually stayed on Zurich was still there. It was, but the devastation we saw on the way up there was just awful. I still keep the memories from all of those years past in my heart and I still pray for the people who were affected that night in 2016.

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  33. Almost 7 years to the day. Same “exceptional drought” conditions. Same expectation of high, erratic wind gusts. Same possibility of heavy rain to follow. Same general location. Such a tragedy!

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