GATLINBURG, Tn. — From afar, the recent fires carving into the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains looked like lights glowing on a series of green Christmas trees.
The flames left large swaths of one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations unrecognizable. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam called it the worst fire the state had seen in a century.
The fire’s destructive path ravaged almost 18,000 acres. Along the way, the wildfires killed at least 14 people, damaged or destroyed about 1,400 buildings and displaced more than 14,000 residents and visitors.
But a series of blessed rains knocked out all the fires and the city of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and the area has reopened to the public today as plans for holiday events continue amid recovery efforts in the wake of last week’s deadly wildfires.
The wildfires started on Chimneys Top Trial on Nov. 23, with high winds spreading them into Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevier County. Fourteen people were killed in the blaze, almost 2,500 structures were damaged or destroyed and 17,000 acres were burned. An evacuation order for Gatlinburg remained in place for more than a week.
Two juveniles have been arrested and charged with aggravated arson in connection with the blaze.
Visitors heading back to Gatlinburg will find all major roadways open though some city roads may be closed for utility work. Downtown Gatlinburg was mostly spared in the fire and the vast majority of businesses are open. Officials said visitors may see smoke rising from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park but the area is being monitored and patrolled.
Ripley’s Aquarium opened early Friday morning after being closed more than a week. Employees were forced to evacuate and leave the animals behind as the fire approached but marine biologists were able to get into the building within 24 hours and all animals were OK.
“It’s the aquarium you all know and love. Everything here is fine, and we are even decorated and ready for Christmas,” said Ryan DeSear, general manager of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. “If you came right now to downtown Gatlinburg, you wouldn’t know that anything happened. You can walk up and down the streets, and all your favorite places are still here and ready for business.”
Great Smoky Mountain National Park has reopened as well.
“The past several1 days have been the most challenging and emotional days our community has likely ever had to endure,” Superintendent Cassius Cash said. “The amount of love, strength, and support offered to our community has been inspirational not only to us, but also to those watching from across the world. Our community has shone brightly in the midst of this disaster and proven that we are truly mountain tough.”
The following trails are closed due to wind or fire damage: Chimney Tops Trail, Road Prong Trail, Sugarland Mountain Trail from Mt Collins Shelter to Little River Road, Huskey Gap Trail, Rough Creek Trail, Old Sugarlands Trail, Twin Creeks Trail, Baskins Creek Trail, Bull Head Trail, Rainbow Falls Trail, Trillium Gap Trail, Grapeyard Ridge Trail from Campsite 32 to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Gatlinburg Trail, Cove Mountain Trail, Sugarland Valley Nature Trail, Noah Bud Ogle Nature Trail, Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, the Sugarlands Horse Concession trails, and the quiet walkways along Newfound Gap Road.
The Gatlinburg Winter Magic Trolley Ride of Lights restarted on Dec. 12.
The fate of the annual New Year’s Eve Ball Drop hasn’t been determined, according to city officials.
Nearly 50,000 people generally attend the Dec. 31 event held at the base of the Space Needle. The celebration typically includes a fireworks show choreographed with music broadcast from the 400-foot tall structure equipped with LED lights.
City officials said they are still determining if they will hold the New Year’s Eve event.
For information about how to go about assisting the Gatlinburg recovery effort ofr more information, contact the city at www.gatlinburg.com.