This post was really rough for me to write - not because of the content, but because I'm honestly just so tired. It's been over a week since the wildfires struck the town of Gatlinburg. With all the misinformation and jumbled messages out there, I wanted to put it all in one place. I've had so many people - former clients, friends, old thru hiking buddies, and even total strangers - emailing me and asking how to help. Here is my experience in the Gatlinburg area in the past week with some links to legitimate ways to help out.
A lot of people assume these fires all started on Monday last week, but that's actually not true. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you might recall my last backpacking trip of the season had to end a day early due to wildfire. In early November I was actually walking directly into a fire outside of Franklin, NC. The following weekend NoKey and I took a hiking trip and we were very close to another fire outside of Robbinsville, NC. Basically, from the end of October until this very moment wildfires have been ravaging the drought-stricken Southeastern US. In the Smokies, we are officially down more than 13 inches of rain for the year. This doesn't sound like a lot, but when you take into consideration that we in the Smokies are actually considered a temperate rainforest and our springs were running dry in the high elevations, it was the perfect set of conditions for a fire.
While the fires were spreading throughout the region the air quality became very poor here. Some days when I would go out to lead a hike you could smell the smoke in the air and you'd get massive headaches just from being outside. Some days it looked as thick as fog. We had nothing to worry about then - the fires were upwards of 50 miles away and across a giant lake. Then, November 23rd, 2016, a fire broke out on the Chimney Tops here in the Smokies. It has been proven at this point this fire was deliberately set. In fact, 79% of the fires in the southeast that have been burning have been proven to be arson. With the severe drought in place, the southeast has become an actual tinderbox. On Monday, November 28th, many of us in the area knew something was very, VERY wrong. The smoke in the air was incredibly thick. There was an eerie yellow glow. Many downtown Gatlinburg businesses locked up early due to the shops and restaurants filling with smoke. By 2 p.m., the press conference told people there was another fire behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center - less than 2 miles from town. We were told not to worry. However, there were strong storms coming into the area that night. Strong storms bring with them strong winds. By 5 p.m. the winds had begun to gust and we were seeing gusts up to 91 mph. By 7 p.m. chaos began to erupt. It was being reported that the dry ground and winds were causing the fires to spread at 30 feet per minute and evacuations were starting. Traffic was snarled. The videos started pouring in on our Facebook feeds of people driving through flames on Ski Mountain.
From our house, which was also starting to fill with smoke and was not near any fires, we were watching Gatlinburg catch fire. We were glued to social media trying to figure out how to help and what we could do. We helplessly watched as friends were fleeing their homes and learning what was supposedly on fire. We would learn a week later that more than 1700 buildings were destroyed and 14 people would be left dead. My friend and coworker, Sam, who was 8 months pregnant, lost her home and went into labor a few days later. Many people living in the neighborhoods destroyed were immigrants who speak no English and are left with absolutely nothing. So many people lost everything and we had to help.
Appalachian Folks have a way of helping their own in need. Now, a week after the fires, they're begging people to stop donating physical items like clothing and bottled water. We ran out of places to store the items and we can't get them delivered to the people who need them most. Dolly Parton set up the My People Fund, a foundation that gives 100% of the money raised to victims of the fire to get them back on their feet. Local charities, like Crib Connection, have been getting in touch with people via social media to help them get the items they need. The Volunteer Spirit is alive and well in East Tennessee. We are far from in the clear, however. Over the next week we need approximately 2000 volunteers to help us sort and deliver supplies to families in need. We are desperately in need of translators who can speak Spanish to help those who can't communicate with local hospitals and clinics. We need diapers and formula for those living in the shelters. We need toys for the kids.
Below you'll find a few links. If you're in the area we would love to see you out volunteering. If you're not in the area and want to help, please see the first link below to the Mountain Tough website.
Finally, this is the Go Fund Me for my friends Sam, Junior, and new baby Abbie. These are the most generous, sweetest people I know and they definitely need a hand.
Thank you, THANK YOU to each and every one of you who reached out during this terrible time. Seeing all the emails from you guys just warmed my heart.