GATLINBURG, TN (WIS) - City leaders in Gatlinburg, Tennessee say the small tourist town is coming back better stronger than before following the devastating wildfires of 2016.
That's all thanks to the resilient people who make up the community and thousands of volunteers and support from many people in communities beyond their own.
"When you go through something like this it brings you together. It's been a very difficult year but we're going to be OK and we're going to come out on the other side," said Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau Public Relations Director Marci Claude.
One year later, the overarching message from city officials and visitors alike is that Gatlinburg is open for business.
"Just come on! It's like nothing ever happened here. The people are still here, the streets are crowded, lots of traffic, lots of things to do," said Michelle Goss.
Her family was in town from Batesburg celebrating her son's 16th birthday. Like many other families, Gatlinburg has been a vacation tradition for her family for many years. They were here last year just a few weeks before the fires broke out.
"For the families who did lose family members and homes and so many businesses and people out of work, it's devastating," said Goss's sister, Melanie Smith.
For nearly two weeks last year, Gatlinburg was closed. That's hard to imagine in such a vibrant town of about 4,000 that hosts 10 million visitors a year, but it was a reality.
In the end, the damage was estimated at $500 million, with 2,500 structures were burned and nearly 200 people were injured, 14 people were killed as what began a small, contained fire grew to encompass 17,000 acres.
While rebuilding efforts have been steady over the last year, and people have returned, in some parts of town the devastation can still be seen. A short drive out of downtown Gatlinburg reveals black, white, and gray rubble and shells of what was once people's homes and rental properties.
Pete Jucker lives in a community called Chalet Village. It's one of the areas where some of the fire victims were found. Jucker evacuated and returned home to nothing a few weeks later. He's lost his home and everything that remained inside.
"I pulled up and I was pretty well stunned. My neighbor's house, it looked melted... vinyl siding was just curled up. Our house's name was named Little Bear. I stood right there and said goodbye to Little Bear. I looked down into that pit and took photos and video," Jucker recalled.
In an effort make sure his neighbors and friends are better prepared should this ever happen again, Jucker is now spearheading the FireWise effort in his neighborhood. It's an information campaign by the National Fire Protection Association to help communities at risk for fire better equip their homes and properties to withstand the flames.
"Any kind of flammable mulching up against your house is really not a good idea. This is rock-scaping here. The bushes are spaced apart so if one bush catches on fire it can't directly catch the next bush on fire."
Other recommendations include making sure your roof and gutter are free of debris like dry leaves or pine straw that could catch embers. Replace or repair
any loose or mission shingles or roof tiles to prevent ember penetration. It's also recommended to trim low hanging branches and limbs from tall trees and keep debris out of your yard.
Read more about FireWise here: http://firewise.org/wildfire-preparedness/be-firewise/home-and-landscape.aspx.
Jucker says these are small and often easy changes that can make a big difference in the event of a fire. A recent community meeting held on the topic drew about 90 people, he said. "There are things that we can do to prevent our home from catching on fire if we know what to do."
In the aftermath of the fire Jucker also came with two ideas designed to rally the community around healing.
Flags began popping up around town that read "Heal to Rebuild." It was an effort to collect money to provide families in need with a Christmas in 2016. The fires struck just under a month before Christmas Day. Jucker says, with the help of others, he was able to provide Christmas for 17 families last year.
Magnets also began popping up on the backs of people cars that read "Heart is bigger than fire."
"Fire is destructive. It's also rebirth. But the heart of the people that helped us out after the fire is much bigger than the fire ever was," Jucker said.
It's that spirit that has kept Gatlinburg on his path to recovery and brought many people, including some from the Midlands, back to town.
"It's really interesting when you hear folks say, 'where was the fires?' That makes my heart happy," Claude said. "That's what keeps you looking forward to the next day, next month, next year [and] Christmas is going to be a heck of a lot better this year."
City officials have said the will announce plans for a memorial to honor the victims of the wildfires on Nov. 28.