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A checkerboard of devastation: Fire levels some areas and leaves others untouched

A checkerboard of devastation: Fire levels some areas and leaves others untouched

GATLINBURG — Just before hitting the McDonald’s along U.S. 321 east of Gatlinburg on Dec. 2, traffic slows to a crawl. Then, to all but a stop. Hundreds of homeowners, business owners and residents line up in anxious anticipation as to what they’ll find when they finally make it through the checkpoint. An intact home, landscaped with magically unsinged shrubs? Or a pile of ash, nothing left except perhaps a few concrete steps leading to a nonexistent porch?

After the checkpoint it’s smooth sailing. The cars spread out, and suddenly it seems like there’s way too much road for the amount of traffic available to fill it. Gatlinburg is supposed to be crowded. Even on the worst day of the year, it’s supposed to be full of tourists headed to Ripley’s Aquarium, the Ole Smoky Distillery or any of the countless tourist shops lining the streets downtown. 

Today, the sun is shining, the sky is blue — and, somehow, downtown is empty. Every few seconds, a vehicle will drive past, usually belonging to some branch of law enforcement. Stepping on the sidewalk feels like stepping onto an empty stage. 

Duck inside the Hampton Inn, and at first glance things look normal. There are Christmas decorations in the lobby, an employee at the front desk. But the air is full of smoke, and windblown leaves and dirt are scattered on the floor. 

“No one expected it to do what it did,” says General Manager Christie Connatser. “I think it really caught a lot of people off guard, myself included.”

When the fire hit on Monday night, Nov. 28, Connatser had already left for the day. She wishes she’d known what was about to happen. She would have stayed, she said. Instead, she had to talk her employees through the crisis via telephone as they got the inn’s guests to safety. 

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Connatser is grateful to still have a job, as the Hampton — like the rest of Gatlinburg’s main drag — escaped the flames. She and her staff are busy washing linens and airing out the rooms to banish the smell of smoke. The building will soon be back in a pre-fire state, she said, and she expects the same will be true of many other businesses downtown. 

“We have every faith that it’s going to be that way sooner rather than later,” Connatser says. “Our community is just amazing.”

Other parts of the city weren’t so lucky. Up on Ski Mountain Road, Sam Cox, 72, was pacing the parking lot, gazing at the rubbled remains of what had once been his rental properties and commercial buildings. 

“They stayed till they saw the fire coming down the side of the mountain,” he says, pointing to three concrete steps next to what had been a rental cabin before the fire converted it to a pile of ash. Luckily, its inhabitants made it out.

The brick walls of the commercial buildings are still standing, but little else. Roofs, windows, garage doors — all gone. A Jeep was left parked outside, and all that’s left of that is the metal frame. Even the glass and the tires have vanished. A grove of trees borders the developed area, and those are still standing. The ground is burned only a few feet inside the forested area. 

“I’m still trying to figure out how the fire engulfed this whole area without going back into the mountains,” Cox says.

He figures he’s lost about seven or eight structures, though several of his other business interests are still standing. 

“It means I’m not going to be nearly as busy,” he says wryly. 

Across the street, husband and wife Kathy Moore and Robert Hintz have parked to see what’s left of Ski Mountain Chalet Rentals, where Hintz has worked for the past 25 years. Though most of the village’s rental properties are still standing, the office building is gone, part of an area about the size of a football field that’s nothing but rubble. A burned-out truck, a row of singed washing machines with no walls surrounding them, the skeleton of an office building. 

The couple lives off of Glades Road. They watched the orange glow fill the sky all night long the night of the fire, but thankfully their home was spared. 

“We were scared. We packed up our cars with all the important stuff,” Moore said. “We just basically sat and watched it all night.”

It’s devastating, she said, to see how much was lost, how many lives were impacted. But driving through Gatlinburg today gave her hope. 

“When you watch it on TV they continually loop the worst areas,” she said, but that’s not the whole story. 

“What strikes me,” she said, “is there are a lot of areas where you can’t even tell that there’s anything wrong.”

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