Ray Johnson reflects on Gatlinburg fire


February 22, 2017

As I give you this update on the overwhelming firestorm that took us all by surprise here in the Great Smoky Mountains, I feel it is important to also include the timeline of the monster that affected so many:

  • Wednesday, Nov. 23: A fire of about 1.5 acres is reported at the Chimney Tops Trail, which is located about 5.5 miles from downtown Gatlinburg, Tenn., in the National Park.
  • Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 24: The fire continues to spread.
  • Sunday, Nov. 27: The fire grows to more than 35 acres — and the real devastation is just about to begin.
  • Monday, Nov. 28: At about 6 p.m., a mighty storm approaches fast with winds that reach 87 mph, pushing and spreading the fire into the quaint little resort town of Gatlinburg.
Photo: ©iStock.com/Byronsdad

Photo: ©iStock.com/Byronsdad

The overpowering winds at my house in nearby Sevierville were a rare site to witness. The smoke at my office and home was nothing like we had ever seen. The sky was a dark yellow to burnt orange color, and the smoke odor was strong. Little did we know of the horror that was going on just a few miles down the road.

I remember everyone had been told that rain was on its way, and to expect it to hit around 7 p.m. People were praying for the rain, and for the firefighters and first responders — many of whom had come from several states away to help — who had been battling the fires since Wednesday. The rain didn’t come until sometime around midnight, and it wasn’t the amount we needed to douse the fires. Days later, we did receive the amounts of rainfall that really helped to bring this nightmare to rest.

As of now, more than 2,460 homes or structures have burned to the ground. Many more have been partially burned or damaged by smoke. Not only did we lose hundreds of power poles and lines to the high winds and trees coming down on them, but we lost cell towers, cutting off communications during the ordeal. I saw photos of metal power poles that had melted. It’s been said that this was a 100-year fire, and all of the people living here now have never witnessed anything like it. To date, the death toll is at 14.

Still, we are Mountain Tough. Throughout all of this, the people of our area have pulled together. On Dec. 4, Dolly Parton held a televised fundraiser that brought in millions of dollars to help the people of this area where she grew up (you can still donate at DollywoodFoundation.org). On Dec. 17, Zack Brown and friends put on a special fundraising concert. So many have helped, including the Red Cross, Samaritans Purse, the Franklin Graham Ministry and area churches and individual volunteers.

We lost about 60 customers’ homes and several businesses, and one of our customers died. Still, I am grateful my home and business survived the fire, and my family and my employees’ families have a place to sleep tonight, and a place to go to work tomorrow.

You can reach Ray Johnson, a past president of the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), president of Sevierville, Tenn.-based Johnson Pest Control, and founder of ACES for Business at ray@johnsonpestcontrol.com.


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