My colleagues and I awoke Nov. 29 in Nashville, Tenn., to startling news and video of fire ravaging homes and resort structures toward the east in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in the Great Smoky Mountains.
When messengers to the Tennessee Baptist Convention held their annual meeting Nov. 13-17 at the Sevierville (Tenn.) Convention Center in this area, they could see and smell the smoke that hovered over the region. But they could not have anticipated what transpired two weeks later when flames attacked the two resort communities and the surrounding area.
Firefighters had focused their efforts on about 40 fires in the area. Severe drought had created conditions conducive to the fires, and winds fanned the flames and crippled firefighting efforts.
But excessively high winds — some approaching 90 mph — spewed embers into the resort towns, destroying well over 100 homes and torching resort buildings, including a 17-story hotel and many others. Dolly Parton’s Pigeon Forge theme park Dollywood was spared but 12 of its Smoky Mountain Cabins were destroyed or damaged.
In all, some 80,000 acres of land were ravaged by fire. A half-inch of rain helped the situation but did not fully dampen the fames and devastation. Early reports indicated fire was responsible for three deaths with more likely to be discovered.
Thousands of residents were evacuated as fiery embers blew across broad areas.
Midwesterners are used to seeing such fiery devastation in news clips from places like California, where forest fires routinely seem to get out of hand. Even the most extensive efforts seem to fail to control rampant fires.
For us, it is shocking to learn of resort structures and homes by the hundreds being destroyed by runaway flames in well-known places not so far from where we live and perhaps where we have had occasion to visit frequently.
The Great Smokies are not out of the woods yet as far as the fires are concerned. Disaster relief specialists have begun planning their response to those affected. Clergy and other citizens are appealing for prayer on behalf of victims.
Resort operators wait anxiously — many of them praying, too — to see if more predicted rainfall will help turn the tide and halt runaway flames and their devastation.
Having enjoyed the scenery and the setting myself over the years, I join others in praying for all affected by devastation to this garden spot that runs down the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina.
One can hardly gaze across this mountain range without realizing the beauty of God’s creation. I lament the loss that is being experienced there as I write.
Bill Webb is editor of Word & Way.