Gatlinburg Fire 2016: How It Happened & the Aftermath

The Gatlinburg fire of 2016 began in late November - the day before Thanksgiving - on Chimney Tops Trail in a period of extreme drought. After 5 days of the fire spreading around the northern part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and into Gatlinburg, it was finally contained. It is now considered one of the largest natural disasters in the history of Tennessee.

Gatlinburg Fire 2016

Gatlinburg Fire 2016: The Start

On Wednesday, November 23, 2016 a hiker on the popular Chimney Tops Trail managed to capture a photo of two teenage boys dropping lit matches on the trail despite the current no-burn order in the area. That evening, GSM park officials tweeted that a 1.5 acre fire (Chimney Tops 2 fire) was burning in a steep location around the Chimneys. Initially park officials did not attempt to suppress the fire, as they expected the natural landscape of the area to contain it.

Between Thursday, November 24 and Saturday, November 25 National Park Service crews "identified and worked to establish a containment area lower down on the mountain where there was a higher chance of success to stop the fire" (NPS) until the weather took a turn for the worse the following Sunday. [Click to show containment area map]

Gatlinburg fire 2016: containment area around the Chimneys

The initially established containment zone for the fire around the Chimneys


November 24 containment area of the Gatlinburg fire

Thursday, November 24: the fire's current range within the containment area


November 26 containment area of the Gatlinburg fire

Saturday, November 26: the fire had spread but still remained within the containment area


The Fire's Spread

The humidity values for the area on Sunday, November 26 dropped to an exceptionally low 17%, and the national weather service warned to expect 40 mph winds the following day. National Guard crews from Chattanooga were called in, and three Chinook helicopters began dumping gallons of water from Pigeon River's West Prong on top of the fire. At this time the fire was still within the defined containment boundary. The crews went home late Sunday night.

The following Monday morning of November 28, maintenance crews discovered that the containment area had failed, and the fire had spread across 250 acres - 10 times as big as it was the day before. Wind gusts had spread embers from the Chimney Tops fire and other small fires had begun to break out. The wind also created large clouds of smoke, making it impossible for air support to intervene. [Click to show containment area map]

November 28 containment area of the Gatlinburg fire

Monday, November 28: the day the area had wind gusts of 40 mph, the fire exploded


Original fire area around the Chimneys shown next to ridges south of Gatlinburg

Above: The strong gusts of wind picked up embers from the Chimney Tops 2 fire and wildfires began to appear on the western ridges of Mount LeConte, toward the Twin Creeks picnic area, and eventually into Gatlinburg.

The City of Gatlinburg

By Monday, Gatlinburg's streetlights had switched on during the day as a haze enveloped the mountain town. An additional fire near Twin Creeks Picnic Pavilion (less than 2 miles from Gatlinburg's city limits) had been spotted that morning. Ash covered cars and trees began to fall due to the wind. Fire management officer for the national park Greg Salansky recommended evacuation for residents around Mynatt Park. Park officials closed roads and trails.

By the time local officials were informed about the true danger, the Chimney Tops 2 fire was unstoppable. A lack of early notice was the most critical failure of all.Greg Miller, Gatlinburg Fire Chief

Gatlinburg Fire 2016: Aftermath

Most of Gatlinburg's community (around 14,000 people) were able to evacuate safely, but by December 12, 2016, fourteen people had been killed and nearly 200 were injured. The fires ultimately burned more than 15 square miles of land inside the national park (most notably the area surrounding Mount LeConte and the Chimneys) and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.

Destroyed Gatlinburg Properties

Among the debris included Alamo Steakhouse (which has since been rebuilt), Highland Condominiums, Hughes Hall and Wild Wing at Arrowmont, Buckberry Lodge, about 70 homes in the Cobbly Knob area, 31 homes within the Condo Villas of Gatlinburg Association, Cupid's Chapel of Love, several Dollywood cabins, The Mountain Lodge restaurant, homes at Tree Tops Resort, around 70 homes in Wears Valley, and many cabins at Westgate Resort.

February 2021: new growth on Baskins Creek Trail
February 2021: new growth on Baskins Creek Trail

Affected Trails in the GSM

Just after the fire, 31 miles of hiking trails were closed indefinitely due to fire or wind damage. They were Baskins Creek, Bullhead, Chimney Tops, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, Cove Mountain, the Gatlinburg Trail, Huskey Gap, the Bud Ogle nature trail, Old Sugarlands, Rainbow Falls, Road Prong, Rough Creek, Sugarland Valley, Trillium Gap, Twin Creeks, the Sugarlands horse concession trails, and portions of Sugarland Mountain and Grapeyard Ridge.

A lot of the affected area was in around Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and Cherokee Orchard. The trails that sustained the most damage were of course Chimney Tops where the fire started, in addition to Bullhead, Baskins Creek, and Rainbow Falls. Bull Head ridge was one of the first areas the fires "ridge hopped" to on Monday, November 28, 2016. You can still see much of the damage these trails sustained today.

November 2020: burnt trees on Bullhead Trail
November 2020: burnt trees on Bullhead Trail
November 2020: new growth appearing on Bullhead Trail
November 2020: new growth appearing on Bullhead Trail

Note: This post was originally used to update the community as the events of the Gatlinburg fire 2016 took place. The following is the remainder of that original content.


Relevant News Articles:

Gatlinburg Mountain Tough Benefit Festival: (December 17, 2016 in Downtown Gatlinburg) In collaboration with Ole Smoky Distillery, Yee-Haw Brewing Company, and Music City Roots, we are proud to announce #MountainTough, a day-long, outdoor mini-festival to combat the devastating toll of the recent wildfires and to assist those affected by them. Headlined by Zac Brown Band, the festival will take place next Saturday, December 17th at 705 Parkway in downtown #Gatlinburg and will be broadcast live by WMOT Middle Tennessee Public Radio. Artists confirmed for Mountain Tough include the Zac Brown Band.


Updates from the City Of Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism:

PIGEON FORGE, Tennessee (Dec. 3, 2016)—The Pigeon Forge Distribution Center at 149 Cates Lane has been receiving donations from across the country this week. We are overwhelmed by the generosity that has been shown. [+More]

At this point in time, the distribution facility is at capacity. Anyone still wishing to help the folks in Sevier County affected by this week’s wildfires, please consider making a monetary donation to one of these three organizations:

  • The Dollywood Foundation “My People Fund” – DollywoodFoundation.org
  • Sevier County Fire Relief Fund at any branch of Citizens National Bank in East Tennessee
  • Gatlinburg Relief Fund at any branch of SmartBank in East Tennessee

If you already have collected donations, please schedule delivery by calling 865-804-1658; deliveries of water can be scheduled at 865-368-9013. This will help us get items to the appropriate location.

Volunteers are always needed at the distribution center to assist those in need. To learn more about how you can volunteer your time, visit VolunteereTN.org.

PIGEON FORGE, Tennessee (Nov. 30, 2016)—As the city of Pigeon Forge continues to assist its residents and visitors affected by recent wildfires, a Pigeon Forge supply distribution center will open Thursday, December 1 at 9:00 A.M. Volunteers are needed to staff the facility for the next few weeks Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Volunteers are needed to assist shoppers, sort and restock supplies, and unload and document deliveries. Those interested should call 865-804-1661 for more information beginning Thursday, December 1.

Donated food and supplies are accepted at the Pigeon Forge Distribution Center located at 149 Cates Lane. Please see the list of much-needed items here: http://mypf.social/pfdonationneedsdec1.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and Tennessee Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster established a call center to provide information for those who would like to donate goods or volunteer to help survivors. For additional information, please call 866-586-4483.

Again, the generosity of our Pigeon Forge community and beyond is greatly appreciated.

PIGEON FORGE, Tennessee (Nov. 30, 2016)—After receiving an overwhelming volume of donated supplies, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has opened a supply distribution center to serve those affected by recent wildfires and help the community and its members. [+More]

The generosity of our community and others across the state of Tennessee and beyond is simply more than we could have ever imagined,” said Pigeon Forge City Manager Earlene Teaster. “It is a blessing to us to pay this forward by establishing a distribution center to serve all of our Sevier County neighbors and visitors who have been affected by recent wildfires.

The distribution center opens on Thursday, Dec. 1, and is located just off the Parkway in Pigeon Forge in the former Boyds Bear facility at 149 Cates Lane. The facility will be staffed and open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m.

“As folks begin to rebuild, these donated items provide for many of the necessities in the coming weeks,” Teaster added. “As the donors intended, hopefully these items will help lighten the burden of those in need.”

Any Sevier County resident or visitor who was affected by the wildfires is encouraged to visit the distribution center.

Available supplies include bottled water, adult- and children’s-sized apparel, footwear, blankets, food, beverages, over-the-counter medications, personal hygiene products, diapers, flashlights, baby formula and more.

The distribution center will remain open until demand decreases or inventory is depleted. Donation collection efforts that are already under way will be received at the distribution center. City officials kindly request that no new donation collection efforts begin until the current supply is reduced and additional storage space becomes available.

Monetary donations, which assist those affected in securing temporary housing during the rebuilding process, are still needed. Opportunities to aid in disaster relief can be found at redcross.org/donate. To make a $10 donation, text the word REDCROSS to 90999. Monetary contributions also may be sent to Citizens National Bank, attention: City of Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg & Sevier County Relief Fund, 200 Forks of the River Parkway Sevierville, Tennessee 37862.

Contact: Trish McGee for the City of Pigeon Forge: (865)-654-6242

Donations

Many of you continue to ask about making “financial/cash” contributions to help our displaced families... thank you so very much!

Our suggestion is to “GIVE DIRECTLY" to 3 accounts:

  1. City of Pigeon Forge Fire Relief Fund - Donations can be made at any CNB branch or mailed to: Citizens National Bank, 200 Forks of the River Pkwy, Sevierville, TN 37862
  2. The Gatlinburg Relief Fund has been established at SmartBank. Donations can be dropped off at any location or mailed to: Gatlinburg Relief Fund, SmartBank P.O. Box 1910, Pigeon Forge, TN 37868
  3. Dolly Parton's "My People Fund"

PLEASE KNOW: these 3 accounts/funds are setup and administered by The City of Pigeon Forge, The City of Gatlinburg and The Dollywood Company, and all (100%) of the money will go to help aid the families displaced by the wildfires.


Please bring donations to the old Boyd's Bear facility in Pigeon Forge at 149 Cates Ln. and spread the word to any victims that they can pick up supplies here from 9:00 AM - 4:00 PM through Saturday and 1:00 PM - 4:00 PM on Sunday. Volunteers are also welcome to sign up throughout the weekend.

THE BEST WAY YOU CAN PROVIDE SUPPORT: You can help us most by visiting with us! Your visitation helps sustain our businesses and our employees. If you have future reservations, please don’t cancel. Come see us!

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