GATLINBURG, Tenn. - One year after the deadliest wildfire in Tennessee's history, residents of Sevier County prefer to not talk about the past. They instead want to focus the on rebuilding and rebirth of an area still deeply scarred by the unprecedented blaze.
Fourteen lives were lost on November 28, 2016 as hurricane force winds pushed the fire in a direct line north from the Chimney Tops peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. By the time the fires were put out by Mother Nature's heavy rainfall days later, some 17,000 acres had burned.
Officials believed more than 10,000 homes and businesses were destroyed.
For first responders who were on the front lines that night, it was a hellish experience. Most risked their own lives in an effort to evacuate residents as the fires tore through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
"It's a day that is surreal. It's not like anything you've seen before," says Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson.
Watson is a life-long Sevier County resident. He knew his crews were in trouble when the winds suddenly picked up, topping 90 miles-per-hour.
"We were putting our guys out in harms way, that normally they wouldn't be asked to do, to rescue civilians and save homes," the Chief recalled.
Chris Altman was one of those firefighters on the front lines that night.
"There was no time to sit there and think, 'Am I going to make it?'" Altman said about being surrounded by flames, falling trees, and debris that night.
"It was chaotic. You think that there's nothing you could do. The only thing you could do was watch," Altman added.
Like most first responders from Sevier County, it would be days before Altman would get any kind of considerable sleep. All of this, as he dealt with a serious eye injury.
"There was a big pile of leaves which caught on fire. It turned to embers and it hit me in the face, so I was down to one eye all night. It was swollen shut the rest of the night," he said.
Once the fires were out, it became clear that the loss of life here wasn't the only kind of loss the Great Smoky Mountains was going to experience. Businesses that relied so heavily on tourism saw substantial drops in revenue throughout the first half of 2017. Tourism officials said potential visitors saw those prolific images of destruction and thought there was nothing left of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
"Our revenue was soft in July even, which folks aren't use to," said Leon Downey, Tourism Director for Pigeon Forge.
One year later, tourism numbers there have rebounded. Hundreds of homes and cabins were being rebuilt at a flurrying pace.
But some homeowners were not returning, instead choosing simply to sell their empty lots. Rebuilding hasn't gone as quickly as some people would've hoped. Originally, homeowners had until the end of September to get fire debris cleared off their property. That date had to be pushed back until the end of the year to give folks more time, and if they don't comply, they'll face a $50 per day fine.
Still though, through this hard hit area, there has been plenty of hope.
"It is a proud and resilient community. It'll come back. I'm convinced it will," said businesses owner Chris Blanton.
That has been a sentiment shared by everyone who lives there.
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