Damage tally from wildfire complete

12/13/2016

Eleven days after a deadly storm of wind and flame descended upon Sevier County from the Great Smoky Mountains, the nation’s most visited national park reopened Friday alongside the city of Gatlinburg.

The damage, which officials have finally finished evaluating, has been extensive.

As days passed and the smoke began to clear after the Nov. 28 fires, authorities followed a grisly routine, announcing each day the ever-increasing totals that described the damage. Fourteen people died in the fire, which injured at least 191 others and displaced thousands more.

On Thursday evening, officials said in a joint news release the assessment of structural damage to homes and businesses was complete: 2,460 total buildings damaged or destroyed — 1,137 in Gatlinburg, 18 in Pigeon Forge and 1,305in other parts of Sevier County.

I am proud of how hard our community has worked to provide assistance to those devastated by the fires,” Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle said Thursday in a statement. “We focused this week on allowing our residents and business owners the opportunity to return to their properties in privacy as we started the cleanup and healing process together as a community. We have much more work ahead of us, but for now, I look forward to standing behind our business community as we reopen tomorrow to the public and get people back to work.”

Newfound Gap Road, Little River Road, the Gatlinburg Bypass and the portion of U.S. Highway 441 known as the Spur are slated to reopen at 7 a.m., and park visitor centers at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee and Cades Cove will resume normal operating hours, according to a park news release. Cherokee Orchard Road will remain closed, as will hiking trails within the fire footprint.

The park asks that visitors refrain from entering burned areas on foot and reminds visitors that firefighters still are establishing containment lines to ensure the fire is extinguished.

Several upcoming park events have been postponed or canceled. The Festival of Christmas Past, scheduled for Saturday, has been canceled. The Hike 100 Centennial Challenge celebration, scheduled for Friday at the Gatlinburg Convention Center, has been postponed. The Holiday Homecoming at the Oconaluftee Mountain Farm will take place as planned on Dec. 17.

Many residents of the resort town still are without water, and those with water may find it cloudy or discolored because of a lack of supply from firefighting efforts and damaged utilities, according to a joint news release. The water supply for downtown Gatlinburg is at full capacity, and East Gatlinburg’s was not affected.

Returning property owners been urged to check their plumbing systems as freezing weather comes to the area following the fires.

“The exposed pipes in the burned structures typically come apart in the heat of the fire, so it is running water after the fire has subsided,” city spokeswoman Marci Claude wrote in an email. “The city has cut off the water meter supplying water to each property that has fire damage that could have exposed water pipes.”

She suggested other properties make sure water lines are either buried or insulated to ensure pipes don’t freeze.

The Sevier County fires came near the end of a disastrous year for fires in Tennessee, in which 1,427 blazes have spanned 44,027 acres. The severe and at times exceptional-level drought that has been in effect to some extent since April has turned the state, as well as the larger Southeast region, into a tinderbox. Although Gatlinburg received more than 3 inches of rain over the past week, the area remains nearly 14 inches below normal precipitation levels for the year, according to the National Weather Service in Morristown.

The recent rain has been “very beneficial” for the drought, but in the long term, “it’s not going to make a difference” unless the state continues to receive slow, steady rainfall, said Jessica Winton, a weather service meteorologist.

Two teenagers have been arrested on charges of starting the fire that eventually grew to consume parts of Sevier County. The teens, whose names, ages and genders have not been released, remain in custody on aggravated arson charges, said Jimmy Dunn, 4th Judicial District attorney general. They await a detention hearing in Juvenile Court when bond could be set, and could be transferred to Criminal Court if prosecutors move to try them as adults.

The fire burned for days near the Chimney Tops trail inside the park until Nov. 28, when wind speeds approaching 90 mph spread embers from the then-500acre blaze for miles. The hurricane-force winds downed power lines and felled trees, starting several new fires that raced through Gatlinburg and beyond.

The Chimney Tops fire, which had since grown to span more than 17,000 acres, stood at 91 percent contained. The Cobbly Nob fire spanned 756 acres, down roughly 60 acres, and stood at 92 percent contained.

To date fighting the Chimney Tops fire has cost $5,916,962, and fighting the Cobbly Nob fire has cost $265,363.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Travis Dorman

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