November 28, 2016.

This is a date that brings back many different feelings for those that live and work in Gatlinburg, as well as the millions who visit this scenic mountain town in Tennessee. Of course, I’m referring to the wildfires that spread and nearly wiped out the entire city. Many of us didn’t actually experience it, but to those that have fallen in love with this place, it was a helpless feeling watching the events unfolding–and getting constant updates on social media.

This can’t be good.

I remember earlier that day seeing the pictures of Gatlinburg being overcome by ash and smoke and seeing people covering their faces having a difficult time in the smoky air. This was certainly a harbinger, and I was fearful of what might be happening given the reports of high winds forecast with rain still a long way from hopefully halting the progress of the fires that were already spreading just a few miles away in the National Park. I was concerned, to say the least, but I felt that things would hopefully change for the better as the day progressed. Boy, was I wrong.

Gatlinburg is going to burn down

In the evening it became abundantly clear that things were not ok at all, and with the winds becoming hurricane force, I was officially worried. When I realized how close the fires were–after seeing reports of the trees on fire by the Spur–those sinking feelings started setting in: Are the tourists getting out safely? What about the people in the mountains in their cabins? Are they evacuating? Is Gatlinburg going to burn to the ground? We’re going to have to find another place to vacation. At this point, I began to update my wife on what was becoming a dire situation, so she joined me in following the events via Knoxville television social media outlets. All of those previous questions and concerns were being shared as we watched in horror.

I remember staying up pretty late that night, going to bed after hearing the rains had finally come to assist the firefighters in their efforts to save the city. Tragically, people lost their lives trying to escape and countless others had their homes wiped out. So many people’s lives changed that night, and once again, I had never felt so helpless, because I wanted to help but there wasn’t much I could do; eventually, I would make a small monetary contribution to help out those that lost everything.

A huge thank you has to go to the firefighters who made unbelievable sacrifices to at least salvage a large share of what makes Gatlinburg a thriving tourist destination–the many businesses and attractions on the Parkway. They braved blinding road conditions through the mountains and intense heat; and did everything they could possibly do to save lives.

Gatlinburg is still intact, but it is still going through a major rebuilding process that will take some time yet. It is important on this day to take a moment in remembrance of those that had their lives taken from them so tragically and honor everyone that had a hand in helping–and saving–this community, as it is more than just a tourist hotspot; people do live here. Hopefully, we can all learn something and turn it into a positive lesson that we must respect nature and hope that nothing like this will ever happen again.

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