Kara Sewell in Gatlinburg: Rebirth after wildfires

FOX19 NOW Morning Anchor Kara Sewell takes a look at the rebirth in Gatlinburg since wildfires last year. (All photos FOX19 NOW/Kara Sewell)
FOX19 NOW Morning Anchor Kara Sewell takes a look at the rebirth in Gatlinburg since wildfires last year. (All photos FOX19 NOW/Kara Sewell)

GATLINBURG, TN (FOX19) - The Great Smoky Mountains wildfires began in late November 2016, Gatlinburg was one of the mountain towns most impacted.

The fire claimed the lives of fourteen people and dozens more were hurt.

One of the largest natural disasters in Tennessee, the fires burned more than 10,000 acres inside the national park, and 6,000 acres in other parts of the area.

Morning Anchor Kara Sewell traveled to Sevier County to see how the city of Gatlinburg is recovering and what residents and businesses are doing to bring people back to the mountain town.

Spring in the 'Smokies' is a place so colorful, the 'Wildflower Pilgrimage' attracts thousands.

But this year's rebirth goes beyond the season.

"There's not a better place to be than the mountains," said Ohioan Richard Gephart.

And to most, the mountains also mean a visit to Gatlinburg.

Gephart didn't come for the attractions this time.

"We just wanted to see how bad it was, because some people said it may not be the same at all," he said.

His favorite motel is certainly different. Riverhouse Motor Lodge' was one of dozens of businesses destroyed in the wildfires.

"There's a fireplace and the stack is still up there but that's all that's there anymore," Gephart said.

In downtown Gatlinburg, unless you look up, you would never know anything happened.

But atop Downtown is where Ken Webster lives and works.

The Gatlinburg resident also manages Chalet Village Properties, a group of rental cabins hit hardest.

The huge loss, he said, had small impacts on the cost of renting his remaining cabins.

"It might not be the exact thing that they want but they're willing to do that because this is where they've made memories with their families," Webster said.

Visitors have stayed loyal, booking well into summer.

"They say we want to support y'all however we can and we say, the best way you can do that is to come back; stay with us, eat at our restaurants, go to our attractions," Webster said.

Officials with the Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau are sending the same message with added money put toward a new marketing campaign.

"We are currently advertising in 15 different markets to let people know that we're still here and that we're open for business and we want you to come back," Marci Claude said.

Coming off a record-breaking year, CVB Public Relations Manager Marci Claud says promotion was crucial to continue momentum and show people Gatlinburg did not burn down.

New construction is scattered between old favorites.

Five hotels, two attractions and new restaurants will be finished this year.

"We're just looking forward to walking out the future a day at a time and still telling the story of Gatlinburg," she said.

Nothing tells that story better than Great Smokey Mountains National Park.

Most places, healing is well underway. You can barely tell anything  happened.

I took a ride with Park Ranger Jamie Sanders to get a good look.

Sanders took me deep into the fire zone.

Only two percent of the park was burned, and even less is considered a severely burned area.

Every picnic and campsite is open.

"People want to know what's going on. They want to know about their vacation and whether it's okay for them to come back," Sanders said.

In February, the park saw its largest numbers ever.

Sanders says several visitors came to show their support.

Out of the 16 trails that closed, all of them have reopened except four that were severely damaged.

The other trails were cleared and it's hard to believe they were ever touched by fire.

"It's remarkable," Sanders said.

"I was here in February and it was totally black and I was curious how it would heal, so to be able to see green coming up is very promising."

Just like the future in Gatlinburg.

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