Tourists stream back to Gatlinburg, but rebuilding looms

Gatlinburg Tennessee sign
A sign in Gatlinburg, Tennessee is half torched following a November 2016 wildfire. (Mark Nagi/TDOT)

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Visitors jammed the main roads and sidewalks in Gatlinburg as the tourism city reopened to the public Friday for the first time since wildfires killed 14 people.

While the main drag was left intact, the charred remains of homes, vehicles and businesses on side roads served as a reminder of the cleanup and repairs needed in the days ahead. Officials estimate 2,500 buildings were damaged by the wildfires that spread in high winds out of the Great Smoky Mountains on Nov. 28.

The hills around the resort area featured a steady chorus of chain saws. Fleets of utility vehicles and contractors’ trucks came and went. There was little need for security as many of the homes were so heavily burned that there was nothing left to steal.

Tricia Jeter had run the Grand Prix Motel for less than a month when the fires spread onto the ridges around Gatlinburg. Her husband, Kurt, hosed down the roof to keep embers from lighting the building on fire.

“When that fire came across the top, the wind moving it down the mountain was such that when it hit the cabins they looked like you’d lit the head of a match,” Kurt Jeter said. “It would ignite and then it was gone, gutted.”

The Grand Prix avoided the fate of several nearby buildings that were heavily damaged or destroyed. Up the road, a sign advertising the Relaxation Properties stood in front of a burned out structures. All that remained of the Ski Mountain Chalet office were charred laundry machines.

The Jeters have been working quickly to make rooms available to people displaced by the fires.

“We have people scrambling to find a place to live, because the city’s back open so they need to get back to their jobs,” Tricia Jeter said. “If we had more rooms, we’d put more people here. But we’re full.”

On the winding roads around the city, undamaged homes stand next to buildings burned to their foundations. Fire at the Laurel Point Resort torched the indoor pool, covering the water with a thick layer of ashes and debris. An abandoned pickup truck sat burned in a 15-minute parking spot.

Also reopening Friday was the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where prosecutors say two juveniles started the fires that later spread. They have been arrested.

The Smokies are the country’s most-visited national park, and Superintendent Cassius Cash said the days following the fires have been “the most challenging and emotional days our community has likely ever had to endure.”

Officials are trying to guard against side effects of the fires, including flash flooding and mudslides because of the loss of vegetation. U.S. Geological Survey technicians installed a rapid deployment gage to alert officials about unusual stream levels or debris flow.

“It’s to keep our finger on the pulse of the river to see if we have increased runoff rates that could impact the city downstream,” said National Park Service hydrologist Jim Hughes.