I had the opportunity to travel down south this winter, hauling a canoe to a friend near Columbia, South Carolina. Along the way, I stayed with some great people through the Couchsurfing network. They kindly welcomed me into their homes and shared a slice of their lives with me. While passing through Knoxville, Tennessee, I stayed with Susie, a gracious host and sometimes-canoeist/full-time animal lover.
When I arrived at her home, Susie asked what I was interested in seeing or doing in Knoxville. I was open to pretty much anything, I said, because I hadn’t visited Knoxville in such a long time. I also told her that I would be interested in seeing what last November’s fires had done to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the area around Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
She immediately shot me a look that said, “What’s wrong with you?” I quickly explained that it wasn’t a morbid fascination with fire or destruction, but an interest in seeing how it was similar to or different from the results of other fires I had seen.
I also told her about The Outdoor Kind, LLC, and about our commitment to aiding first responders. Satisfied that I wasn’t a pyromaniac (or something even worse), she agreed. So the next day we drove out to see the area with her two pups – and one foster dog – in the back seat of her Mini Cooper.
These wildfires weren’t caused by lightning or an untended campfire in the national park. This was arson, allegedly started by two Tennessee teenagers playing with matches. The damage was extreme: 14 lives were lost and about 150 people were injured, some 2,500 structures were damaged or completely destroyed, and over 15,000 acres burned, much of that in the national park.
The response to the blaze was equally enormous. Nearly 4,000 firefighters put their lives on the line to fight the blaze, and thousands of other first responders aided in efforts to treat and transport the injured, help those who lost loved ones and homes, and conduct evacuations of thousands of people from harm’s way. There was a lot of news footage of the fires, if you’re not familiar with what occurred here. It’s heartbreaking to watch.
The remnants that I saw that January day were equally sad: Large swaths of woodland were burned, with sporadic burn holes (both large and small) pockmarking the forested mountains. Houses had literally burned down to the foundation in searingly hot fires, though many chimneys remained, standing vigil over the surrounding destruction. Fire paths completely destroyed several houses in a row only to miraculously spare the home next door, then inexplicably take down the one just behind that. Rooms on the first floor of one hotel damaged by fire still had the original occupants’ items and snacks sitting in them months later, looking like a set from The Walking Dead, as people had scrambled to immediately leave and didn’t come back. And everywhere you could see the red X’s that marked where first responders had combed the structures for survivors or remains. It was a sobering drive.
The aftermath of any fire like this results in mixed emotions. While there’s great sadness for those tragically affected by the event, there’s also an enormous sense of gratitude to those who worked long hours to contain and extinguish the blaze, maintain order during the evacuations, treat and aid our fellow citizens, and volunteer to help out in countless ways. The scope of this fire required the cooperation of numerous government units and their employees, as well as nongovernmental organizations and their volunteers, and we owe all of them an enormous thanks for everything they did in a region already primed for fire by a severe drought.
The rest of my time in Knoxville was more lighthearted. Susie and I visited craft and whiskey bars, German restaurants, and the city’s very cool Old Town. But seeing the remnants of the Chimney Tops 2 fire will stay with me for a long time. And it reminds me that everything we can do to support our first responders and talk with young people about the very real – and serious – dangers of fire is work well worth doing.