On Our Doorstep: The Gatlinburg Fires

The aftermath of the wildfire in Gatlinburg, Tennesse. Courtesy: https://twitter.com/Everything_TN/status/803643445717909504
The aftermath of the wildfire in Gatlinburg, Tennesse. Courtesy: https://twitter.com/Everything_TN/status/803643445717909504

I grew up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in a log cabin with wood shingles on the roof. I don’t remember once worrying about forest fires. In fact, I distinctly remember feeling lucky as a little girl that we lived in a special place that seemed to be insulated from natural disasters – earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes. And wildfires.

We don’t feel safe like that anymore.

The night the wildfires erupted in Gatlinburg in late November, so did my Facebook page. The news and videos that rolled in grew scarier by the minute. We all live in social media bubbles, and I’ve since realized one of mine is a Gatlinburg bubble, and that most Americans were oblivious to the crisis for days. But that night, it felt like the world was falling apart.

My sister and I tried to track down our parents who still live in our childhood home, where I had just been a few days earlier, visiting for Thanksgiving with my husband and six-year-old daughter. They didn’t return our messages until late that night, and I fell into a fitful sleep feeling scared, worried, and helpless.

Finally, in the middle of the night, we heard from our parents ― they were safe and our home was spared. But many others were not so lucky. Family friends, teachers, people who were part of the fabric of our lives, people we had never met, lost everything. One fire lieutenant described our town this way: “It was like driving into hell.”

Places that were home to childhood memories, not just for us local residents but for the millions of people who visited our town every year, went up in flames. The pain in my hometown right now is unimaginable, and it’s a pain that is felt far beyond our mountain tourist town, because it’s a magical place that means so much to people across Appalachia and the nation, as Jason Howard so beautifully lifted up in his op-ed for the New York Times.

My heart has felt broken ever since.

It’s broken for the suffering of my hometown, and all that has been lost. It’s also broken because I know, after working for the past decade to pull the emergency brake on a burning planet, that climate change is a culprit in this tragedy.

While human activity played a part in these fires, one thing that’s not in dispute is that the region was in the grips of an unprecedented drought, one larger than the one that has gripped California, something totally abnormal for our region. A local emergency manager said, “We’ve never been this dry.”

It was so severe that Tennessee declared a state of emergency Nov. 10, over two weeks before the Gatlinburg fires. The dry conditions allowed the flames to spread like a firestorm, and what resulted was what the governor described as “the largest fire in the last hundred years of the state of Tennessee.”

The Gatlinburg fire chief said, “The likes of this has never been seen here.”

Of course, high winds and downed power lines don’t usually spark such devastating wildfires. The key ingredient in eastern Tennessee is the ongoing, severe drought. All of Sevier County is in an “exceptional drought,” which is the worst on the U.S. Drought Monitor Scale. It means there are widespread crop and pasture losses, shortages in water reservoirs, streams and wells.

In short, eastern Tennessee has turned into a tinderbox.

In the region, the New York Times reported, “wildfires, once a seasonal phenomenon, have become a consistent threat, partly because climate change has resulted in drier winters and warmer springs, which combine to pull moisture off the ground and into the air.”

The Smokies are a temperate rainforest after all – actually, one of the most diverse forests on the planet, home to over 150 species of trees and a dazzling array of birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles – our Smoky Mountains, a national treasure, our pride and joy (along with our famous local daughter, Dolly Parton). Not a place we ever thought of as a tinderbox, especially not in late November.

It’s this magical place and its people that inspired my lifelong love for this beautiful planet and made me who I am, and I want to keep them safe. A couple of years ago, my parents put a metal roof on the house, because they knew the climate was changing and wood shingles had become dangerous. Whether it’s our kids or our planet that have a raging fever, we all need to rely on science and facts to protect the ones we hold dear.

Climate change is not just a threat to our grandchildren, or to generations far in the future. It has landed at my front door, in a place that I frankly thought would be safe. So much of what I love was a few minutes, a few miles away from being lost. I wonder how we would all approach climate change if all felt that way, if we had the visceral realization that the threat was on our doorsteps.

Please pray for Gatlinburg. Contribute to the relief effort. Plan a vacation or buy your holiday gifts there, and help the town get back on its feet. Hug the people you love. Seeing how our town has rallied together in response to the crisis, #SmokiesStrong, has been incredibly inspiring and uplifting, and we will carry on.

And consider that we are all in this together, that everything and everyone we love may suddenly be at risk, that tomorrow this may be on your doorstep, unless we join together to tackle the climate crisis and make this world safe for our kids. The good news is that we have the solutions at our fingertips, and it’s not too late. What we need most is you.

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