Gatlinburg rebounds as residents with Midlands connections reflect on wildfires

GATLINBURG, TN (WIS) - Many South Carolina families head to the Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee for vacation yearly, particularly Gatlinburg.

We're told the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort is where many South Carolinians stay during their visits to town. In 2016 70 of their 90 buildings were destroyed by the wildfires.

For nearly two weeks in late 2016, the population of the town was zero as wildfires ravaged the area. A far cry from nearly 4,000 people who live in Gatlinburg permanently and the 10 million visitors the small city plays host to every year.

City officials say the best thing you can do for the town is to once again resume your vacations and patronize businesses and hotels in town. Tourism is the lifeblood of the economy here.

Heather Fonville, with a partner, runs "Welcome to Gatlinburg," a local company that guides guests to all the great spots around town. She recalls the day last year advising people to get out of town instead of the usual, friendly welcome.

"I called everybody that I knew who lived in town and told them to get out of town. It was crazy. You couldn't even breathe," Fonville said.

Fonville says, that day, she first thought ash falling from the sky was snow. The New Jersey native actually lived in Columbia for many years attending Ridge View High School and USC before briefly living in Utah and then settling in Gatlinburg with her parents and other family members.

"I have so many friends in Columbia still and it was amazing how many friends offered a free place to stay if I needed it," she said.

Fonville, like Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau Public Relations Director Marcie Claude, both had recollections of the devastating floods seen in the Midlands in 2015, drawing comparisons in seeing natural disasters in their old and new hometown.

Claude is a Columbia area native.

"My mother lives in Forest Acres, [and] my sister and nieces and nephews are in Columbia. My nephew works with DNR so he was very involved in the evacuations and searches and rescues," Claude said.

The feeling of not knowing what would happen next, the loss, looking for information in the midst of devastation was a very familiar feeling.

"I was watching very closely, yes I was live streaming WIS … lots of phone calls to mom to make sure she was OK and had water and wasn't driving down the wrong roads. The thing that struck me too, having grown up in Forest Acres, I knew where those floods were, the lakes that were draining. It was particularly hard to watch," Claude said.

Whether it was the uncontrollable floodwaters in the Midlands or the fast-moving fire that engulfed parts of East Tennessee, Claude said both experiences were tough.

During the fires, although devastation was widespread, downtown Gatlinburg was actually largely spared.

"Unfortunately, a lot of folks thought that Gatlinburg completely burned to the ground and that just wasn't the case here," said Convention and Visitors Bureau President and CEO, Mark Adams.

"Since the fire we've got several new hotel properties that have opened up," Adams said.

Among those new additions are a few attractions as well including the Anakeesta, a mountaintop aerial adventure park. A quick 14-minute chairlift ride and you're 600 feet above the town with plenty to eat, do, see - including many trees that are still charred from the fires.

Officials estimate it could take 3 to 5 years for some parts of the forest to come back to life, if at all. Many trees are tagged with pink ribbons by an arborist indicating they will need to be torn down.

At the summit of Anakeesta is a small memorial garden to commemorate and educate visitors about the fires. City officials say a much larger public memorial has been in the works for the last year and plans will be unveiled on the anniversary, Nov. 28.

"Quite honestly we didn't just want to go and get a granite marker and put some names on it. We didn't think that was fair to those families and to those individuals who did lose their lives in the fire." Adams said.

Gatlinburg has a sense of normalcy again. Rebuilding is still underway but droves of tourists are returning to the area. Weekends are jam-packed with people and events and it's a welcome sight.

"People that just come for the weekends typically get here Friday so the traffic is coming into town and then on Sunday they have to go. I'm sad to see them go," Fonville said.

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