It’s always sad to see the destructive forces of Mother Nature. Whether a tornado, hurricane or natural disaster, it weighs on your psyche.
But when it’s close to home, the sadness and concern of those affected is ten-fold in the worry department.
Me, like thousands of Buckeyes make the five-hour trek to Tennessee for family fun and relaxation in the Great Smoky Mountains.
You can imagine then the news of the wildfires in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge last week.
I’ve been a hundred times. My grandparents owned a cabin there, and my parents would visit as I did as a child, now my kids carry on the tradition of our home away from home. Heck, I even proposed there.
The pictures and video coming out of the area were simply surreal. Like a big Hollywood disaster movie. The constant, ‘I was there’ or ‘we ate and stayed in that location’ were flying through my head nonstop.
My main concern though was for friends we’ve made throughout the years. Like Doug and Theresa Phillips. My parents met the Tennessee couple over 35 years ago and struck up a friendship that’s lasted to this day.
Theresa at one time managed a hotel in Pigeon Forge which was for the most part spared from the devastation.
But wasn’t sure where they lived.
A quick facebook message I learned all is OK.
“Hey Jim, we are all fine. My son’s coworker had to evacuate, but it didn’t get his new home, thank God. I was just thinking about Jim and Cookie (my parents) and our good times on the mountain.” Theresa says.
But I think we’re all in disbelief that at press time, officials are looking in to a possible arsonist as the cause.
“Yes, it is heartbreaking to think someone would be so sick minded to plan this Thanks so much for checking on us and Merry Christmas to you and the whole family”. She adds.
Another friend, Linda Watson at one point was marketing director for ‘The Dixie Stampede.’ One of Dolly Parton’s many venues in the Smokies.
“You being a news guy I’m sure you have seen all the videos it is awful. I live about 18 miles from Gatlinburg, a lot of smoke here and ashes have drifted on my deck, but that is all. I feel so bad for those people it is devastating.” Linda says.
But my one dear friend Betsy Janis says it best, “We are all OK, but thought this sort of thing happens on the west coast, not here in the Tennessee mountains.”
Whew, good to know they are safe and sound, but many homes and businesses weren’t so lucky.
If you’re a visitor to the area these will be familiar.
The Alamo Steak House in town is totally gone, as is the Highland Condominiums up on Ski Mountain. We stayed there a few years back.
Hillbilly Golf, which is a mini-golf course you play on a mountainside and accessible by a cable car, sustained some damage. The Mountain Lodge Restaurant is now a shell. In Wears Valley, some 70 homes destroyed. Ditto for Cobbly Knob, another 70 homes and chalets vanished.
The wonderful Westgate Resort and Spa has several cabins damaged and the check-in building is a skeleton, per reports.
Cupid’s Chapel of Love where hundreds if not thousands of couples have tied the knot is now a memory.
Dolly Parton’s theme park Dollywood wasn’t touched except for some cabins which were destroyed or damaged.
It’s weird, but if you know the area it looks like the fire jumped all over the place, destroying one structure and leaving the one next door intact.
Some good news to report; the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies was spared along with the thousands of animals inside.
And downtown Gatlinburg is intact, but with the fire raging out of control it was estimated that more than 14,000 residents and visitors were evacuated per the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. A first for the tourist destination.
Pictures show a venerable ghost town.
About 12 people were taken to hospitals, mostly with non-life-threatening injuries, so says Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said. Now, unfortunately some deaths have been reported.
It was described as a ‘prefect storm’ of drought like conditions, high winds gusting over 80mph, just impossible for the 200 plus firefighters to control.
Now, it’s time to pick up the pieces, reflect and rebuild.
We like thousands of others will return, but will it ever be the same?
No cheers this month, rather a prayer for our friends down south.
Jim Bucher is an area resident and guest columnist.