History of 2016 Smokies fires now available

Photo from Hellbender Press

The following was written by Tom Fraser, mastermind behind the Hellbender Press:

The results of an ambitious effort by University of Tennessee Libraries to capture the history and personal memories of the devastating 2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires are now accessible online five years after the disaster.

The Smokies fires of 2016, which came to a horrible head over that Thanksgiving weekend, killed at least 14 people and countless domestic pets and wild animals. Gale-driven flames burned through thousands of acres in the national park before escaping the boundary and destroying thousands of homes and other structures in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg and smaller communities throughout Sevier County.

“The social, cultural, economic, political, and natural impacts of this event are still being calculated,” according to UT Libraries.

Rising from the Ashes: The Chimney Tops 2 Wildfires Oral History Project, organized with the city of Gatlinburg and the Anna Porter library, collected 140 video and audio interviews with those impacted by the fires, including survivors, government leaders, first responders, scientists, clergy, journalists and mental health experts.

“This project documents one of the most momentous events in modern Tennessee history — in the voices of those who lived it,” said Steve Smith, dean of the UT Libraries in a news release.

“The collected stories document more than tragedy, however; they testify to the resilience of the human spirit. Our team is honored to help preserve these stories for history, study, learning, and research.”

All interviews are preserved within the UT Libraries’ Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives.

The 2016 Thanksgiving wildfire, which began on the Chimneys deep within the national park, was the largest in the eastern U.S. since the 1940s. It burned 17,000 acres, injured at least 200 people and forced the evacuation of thousands, according to UT Libraries. 

“Visitors to the Rising from the Ashes website can approach the topic through different lenses such as the evacuation efforts, the disaster response and recovery, or the ecological impact; hear from medical personnel, business owners, or individuals directly affected by the wildfires; or simply browse through the recorded interviews,” according to a release announcing the final posting of the project.

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Published on December 2, 2021.