Bob Bentz had just installed underground utility lines and paved a new road when wildfires roared through the eastern Tennessee treetop canopy he wanted to transform into a $30 million adventure park.
A year later, after the blaze killed 14 people and damaged or destroyed about 2,500 buildings in the Gatlinburg area, tourists now take a ski lift from downtown up 600 feet to the Anakeesta resort, where they can zip-line, shop, explore a treehouse playground and wander tree to tree on a sky-bridge. The otherwise whimsical park saved space at its highest point for a memorial walk, featuring photos and stories about the heroism, heartbreak and raw destructive force of the fires.
Despite such somber reminders, Bentz is sticking with his plan and, like others, forging ahead, even after a National Parks Service report said the conditions that let flames burn into the city could become the “new normal.”
Climate change, the report concluded, has coupled with other factors to expose more areas like the Great Smoky Mountains foothills to wildfires. The report suggests a new level of vulnerability, with sweeping implications for some of the nation’s most revered wilderness areas and the tourism economy that surrounds them.
But Bentz and city and county officials are unconvinced. They say it’s unlikely that Gatlinburg will again endure a perfect storm of factors that caused the blaze. Teens were playing with matches in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, winds whipped up to about 100 miles per hour to carry embers for miles and down powerlines to start more fires, and months of drastic drought created the perfect dry kindling.
Other businesses are investing with the same confidence. A $35 million Margaritaville Resort is slated to open in Gatlinburg this spring. And two other hotels are already up and running since the fires.
“I’m a believer in climate change,” said Bentz, Anakeesta’s managing partner, who has a forestry background. “But I don’t think we have concern about another fire coming to Gatlinburg and doing the same kind of damage.”
Though downtown Gatlinburg was essentially untouched by the fire, and Sevier County was open for business quickly afterward, it cost an extra $1 million-plus in Gatlinburg advertising and more state money to convey that to travelers.
It took a persistent campaign with simple messaging – “If you want to help, come visit” – to draw people back.
Most of the damage in Gatlinburg was to residential buildings, and more than half of those were second homes or rental cabins, said Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Ogle.
“A lot of folks thought everything in Gatlinburg and Sevier County burned down,” said Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.
Gatlinburg is bustling again along its downtown strip of candy kitchens, restaurants, shops, distilleries with moonshine tastings, mini-golf courses, old-time photo storefronts, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not-brand attractions, including an aquarium.
But there’s also the occasional vacant lot along the winding mountain roads, with only the foundation of a torched home left behind.
The area’s tax revenues bolster its case for a comeback. Gatlinburg’s gross tax receipts were down 36 percent in December 2016, right after the fire, compared to December 2015. This September’s revenues were down only 2.4 percent compared to September 2016, before the fires.
About 92 percent of Gatlinburg’s destroyed properties have been cleared out ahead of the end-of-the-year deadline to do so, Ogle said. More than 500 rebuilding permits have been issued in the city and county, but at times it’s been slow because there are only so many carpenters, plumbers and contractors, Ogle said.
Waters, a 64-year-old who’s lived in Sevier County his whole life, said the fires were nothing like anything he’s experienced, and firefighters said it’s the type of blaze usually seen out West. How climate change plays into it all, he said he doesn’t know.
Still, even though he doesn’t think there will be a repeat of the fires, the region has to prepare for one, Waters said.
Gatlinburg’s flood warning system, which mainly reaches the downtown, is being expanded into other areas the fire torched. There will be an AM radio station for emergency purposes, and local officials won’t have to get state emergency officials’ approval to send mobile emergency alerts, which they weren’t able to do last year because essentially all lines of communication went down.
Additionally, Great Smoky Mountains National Park will undergo a $2.5 million radio communications system upgrade, seven local fire departments will receive radios and protective equipment, and an emphasis will be placed on clearing out dead and dying trees.
Anakeesta, which opened in September, has another $8 million in projects in the works, including a scenic restaurant, mountain coaster and an amphitheater.
Bentz cleared out plenty of dead trees after the fire, revealing a sprawling view of the mountains and Gatlinburg below that he hadn’t planned for.
The charred-black trees that were kept standing to line the memorial walk say plenty about what has happened there, Bentz said.
“It remembers what happened and the loss that occurred, but it also remembers, I think, the generation of new life coming back,” Bentz said.
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