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Wildfire in the Smokies: What You Can Do

The scenes you saw on national television when the Chimney Tops 2 Fire hit the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park late last month were riveting. As the firestorm raged, it was easy to imagine the worst.

As bad at the situation appeared initially, the tourism-driven communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville were immediately on the rebound. In a sense, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville never missed a beat, and Gatlinburg’s restaurants and shops were selling pancakes, fudge and mountain crafts less than two weeks later.

Dollywood and Pigeon Forge’s businesses were unscathed, and Sevierville was miles from the fire. Firefighters came from across the U.S., but before the last long-distance firefighter departed, visitors already were enjoying “A Smoky Mountain Christmas at Dollywood,” laughing at the Comedy Barn’s down-home humor and shopping at Tanger Five Oaks Mall.

Make no mistake — the fire was a tragedy that resulted in 14 deaths, the loss of more than 2,300 residential structures, disruption of business operations across the region and the charring of 17,000 acres of the national park. (Remember, however, that the national park is huge, consisting of 500,000 acres.)

The group travel industry certainly knows how much America loves the Smokies and how much the Smokies benefit the industry. Motorcoaches roll into Sevier County every month of the year, whether they are carrying pre-formed groups to enjoy shows and shopping, adolescents to attend religious youth rallies or retirees to see autumn color.

Right now is the time for the group travel industry to show its support. Here are some practical steps you can take:

  • Stay in touch with your group travel contacts in Tennessee. They need to hear from you, if only for the moral support.
  • Don’t cancel any reservations or tours. Pigeon Forge and Sevierville’s businesses were untouched, and Gatlinburg’s core survived and is rebounding as quickly as possible.
  • Indeed, consider new trips. Call them “Support Our Smokies” tours, because keeping businesses active means that employees keep receiving paychecks.
  • Make contributions to charities devoted to direct local support, such as Dolly Parton’s My People Fund or the campaign of the Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“Tourism is the heart of our economy. It is imperative that everyone understands that our businesses survived and that our mountains are still beautiful. We have the welcome mat out, just as always,” said Mary Hope Maples, director of the Smoky Mountain Tourism Council.

As the smoke cleared, the term “mountain tough” quickly came into use, and Maples pointed to Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner as an example of being mountain tough. Werner lost both his home and his business to the fire, but he never stopped being a cheerleader for tourism.

“If you really want to do something for Gatlinburg, come back and visit us,” Werner said.

About Tom Adkinson

Tom Adkinson retired last summer after 42 years in travel journalism and public relations, the last 14 as Pigeon Forge’s media relations contact.