On November 23, 2016, a fire started along the Chimney Tops 2 that would spread throughout Gatlinburg and become the worst fire in Tennessee of the last 100 years. It claimed 14 lives and over 2,000 homes and businesses.
As the devastation became apparent, Jeremy had an idea to use his camera to bring healing and awareness to the region’s victims in a series.
December 14-20, Jeremy photographed families on a white mattress contrasted by the dark rubble of their destroyed homes. Using a camera attached to a drone, he broadcast their stories and needs to the world.
These are the “Voices of Gatlinburg”
My name is Kirk Fleta and I grew up on a 3,200 acre watershed called Norton Creek. My father, after many years, lost it after being distraught from the death of my mother when I was 11.
My brother, sister and I were each given one acre and I managed to hold on to mine despite good offers. It’s been my dream to build a stone house since I was a kid. I’ve been working on it for years one step at a time doing all the work myself with some help from dear friends of mine. It’s a creative process so I love it. What I had built thus far was at work of art using solid Oak and Eastern Cedar.
It was just a two-story shed, 720 sqft, but it was beautiful. Now I am standing in its ashes wondering, why me? But it wasn’t just me, it was my whole town. None of us saw it coming. It was the perfect firestorm. The recent drought lasted for months with layers upon layers of leaves from numerous fall seasons just waiting for a spark. As misfortune would have it two mischievous teenagers would spark it with matches and local record breaking winds preceding an oncoming storm would fuel the fire.
Now it’s time to rebuild putting all regret and disappointment behind us. My best friend tells me turn tragedy into triumph, but that is my instinct anyway and that’s the way I roll. Thousands literally have reached out to me with assistance and I’m grateful and honored to have such wonderful friends and family out there in the world. This tragedy has reinstated my faith in mankind. I’ve always been one to prefer giving over receiving, so as I get back up on my feet I will boomerang all of this love and compassion right back to my home community so that we all can rise up stronger and better than ever before! It’s time to shine like the sun and make the world a better place!
KARA VAN VEGHEL
It’s not about the “stuff” as the many people who have lost everything I’ve met have said. Stuff is replaceable. I am not. My pets are not. But it’s also a huge loss because that stuff was bought with hard-earned money.
I’ve worked multiple jobs my whole life and everything I had I earned. That’s tough. But still it’s not those things that make me the most heartbroken. It’s the sentimental gifts and tokens and memories that are lost in the rubble and I can't get back physically. But as long as I have the memory of them, I still have them in a way and always will.
I may have only lived in Gatlinburg for four years, and Tennessee for eight years, but I do consider it home. I can tell you my community and its people are hard working, resilient, kind, strong, and full of faith. And now more than ever I believe in the heart of this town and its ability to bounce back from this just as our beautiful park will.
It will take some time and the road isn't easy. But remaining positive, putting one foot in front of the other each day, not giving up, keeping the faith, and looking forward and not back is what will see us recover from this devastation.
We can't change what happened. It’s part of our story now and this is our chance for a brand new start.
People were leaving their cars and running up the road some with personal chainsaws some on fire crews, I saw a friend pass and shouted but he kept running. Some went down to the river. I didn't know until almost a week later but a park ranger forced them to open a road block and divert traffic onto both sides of the road. If it wasn’t for him I may not be here, and many other people may not be here.
As I approached the block I could see the glow of the fire ahead of me. As I started to hit the burning area, the winds picked up with heavy gusts flames began to hurl accross the road, burning embers hit my car, fire was all around me. A river of hot ash pouring over a rock face like a red waterfall.
As I headed towards a wall of flames I told my parents on the phone I loved them and what was happening. I could hear the fear in their voice.
I watched the car behind me catch a flame and I said I had to keep going, even as tears filled my eyes. Suddenly the flames lessened and I could see the bright lights of emergency crews and the Christmas decorations of Pigeon Forge. Somehow I had made it out and within moments it seemed like a dream.
I made it to the hotel to meet other members of my team but was quickly rushed back into my car to driver farther away as another fire started behind our hotel. We eventually made it to Starbucks and developed a new plan. Eventually settling in a new hotel, unable to help, unable to do anything, and not knowing about my house.
We spent the day in the hotel trying to pass the time, it wasn’t until checking my phone before bed that I found a video online from someone who snuck behind the fire line the day after the fires. As they drove down the road the for a flash of second turned the camera towards a familiar field. A field were my house should be. It was then I knew. On Thursday my boss, who was on fire crew went to verify, and on Friday I was able to go in and dig through the ashes of what was left, which was essentially nothing. Even a package that had been in my mailbox with the rewards of black Friday shopping was turned to ash.
I feel naked in a metaphorical sense. You have so many things around you that make you, you and make you unique. The few clothes I grabbed were nothing special, some don't even fit. The things I liked to do all gone. All of my pottery and artwork turned to shreds and ashes. I feel almost lost.
On the morning of November 28, the sky outside was orange, almost like an eclipse. It had been smoky for 2 weeks, but never this color. By 6 or so in the evening the smoke was getting heavier inside the house, mostly from the winds that were picking up speed.
Never did we ever imagine we would be in danger. Never. Even when the EMTs came up our street yelling and making noise, we could not believe it was due to the fire. Surely they are evacuating us for the dense smoke?
As they came up our driveway they were yelling, “Get out! Get out now” My brother replied, “Ok, Ok, but let me get a jacket.” They yelled back “No! Get out! Get out!” “But I have to grab my medication,” said my dad. “No! You can take care of that later!”
As we jumped into our cars after grabbing our dachshund, it never occurred to me that I would never see our home again, or all of my mom’s memories. You see, she died last year and all we have left of her is the museum. Another hard pill to swallow was the loss of my brother’s DeLorean which he cherished for 30 years. If you ever walked the Parkway in Gatlinburg in the evenings you might have seen it driving by. There is one less DeLorean in the world.
We have lost all our tools, both in photography and in jewelry-making and now we have to start again. Like they say, rise from the ashes like the Phoenix. I now tell people, we have lost a house, but Gatlinburg is home.
Honestly, the thing I will miss the most is not the stuff inside at all. I had a lot of good memories in that house. A lot. I’m relatively new to this area. I’ve been here almost 3 years but when I moved here it was the greatest thing that I’ve ever done.
One of my best memories was the very first day I started guided fly fishing. I’m a guide and I just remember waking up and getting all my gear ready knowing that I was about to take out random strangers to fish and it made me really happy. I was going out to do what I enjoy.
For Gatlinburg, this was never on their plate as to what could possibly happen. I know a lot of people and I see it on television...they’re pissed at the town, they’re pissed at the city and everything, but honestly, it should have been a lot worse. They did a damn good job getting us out of here.
As far as I go, I had a lot of family and friends. I’m doing pretty good right now. I just want the rest of Gatlinburg to be good and to get back on their feet and get back to normal because it’s a busy town and we need to get back to that busy.
Mayor Mike Werner
I am so thankful for the strength and peace that the Lord has given me. I continue to ask for wisdom in the healing and recovery period. My family is amazing and comforting to me and I am so fortunate to have them. Better days are ahead for all of us.
I am not surprised by the love and actions of the people of this area they are the reason this place is so special. We thank you for all your thoughts, prayers and donations. Right now, the best thing you can do is make plans to come back to Gatlinburg.
Please visit Mountain Tough for ways you can help those who were affected by the wildfires.
On Monday morning, as we were headed to school, it was already very smoky. When I went to work at 11, I was incomplete shock. It looked like it was 7pm, but with an orange tint! They called school out at 12-ish. We went home, and the house was smelling smoky, so I taped off around all the doors, and closed the flue. I went and did errands, and came back to the house around 6. It was definitely smokier inside. A few people called, saying I should leave, but I really didn't even think it would happen. Finally around 7-ish I decided we would go, because my daughter said her eyes were burning. So I loaded our 2 dogs and a few other things into the car. It was so windy, I told her to look at the ground and cover her eyes.
When I finally got in the car, well, as I was shutting my door, I saw embers in the driveway. My heart dropped. Then she started screaming and crying, and pointed out the top of the hill to the left of us was on fire! I got to the bottom of our hill, and the whole mountain was on fire.
There’s a hotel below our house, so I drove over and ran and told them. They said they just saw and just called. My daughter was frantic! All I could think about was the other houses in our neighborhood where I knew there were elderly people. But as I drove, I was trying to think of anyone close by that could take my daughter so I could go back and tell them. Before I knew it we were on 321. We were going to my sister’s house, but apparently a power line had just fallen.
We were only 3 cars back, and waited and waited. So finally I turned around, and thought I would just go down and around and take the bypass. As we were driving, I want describe how she was screaming, “Mommy, I don't wanna go back home." Right as we got to the parkway, a policeman had just closed it off. So the absolutely only way out was turning back around towards the power line.
It was scary because the smoke was so bad and sirens just kept passing going both directions. We finally got to my sister's, but the sky was bright orange. We had no idea where it exactly was, (it was Cobbly Knob) we caravanned on the back road. We were at a dead stop for hours. We made it to Kodak around midnight. I had confirmation my house was gone at 6am. Someone did a favor and took a pic. Everything I owned was gone, just like that!
I will most miss my daughter Victoria’s writings, books, photographs, and her remains were in the home as well. No amount of insurance money can replace any of that. Also, all of my family heirlooms from my mother and childhood growing up in the Northeast. These are treasures that are gone forever.
The national media doesn't seem to be as interested in this story as other national disasters. I think most people here aren't concerned with that, because they just want to get back on their feet, and then help each other. The local community here is extremely close, strong and generous. People here live simply, and they are just thankful for what they have, instead of stressing about what they don't. I think this is one of the most beautiful places in the world and I am fortunate to call this my home.
Well, it’s a long story how we got out. We barely did. We were trapped by trees and fire was all around us. Our power was out, and when it got dark we could see fire all over Wiley Oakley. We looked down at Westgate, and saw it catching. Then we got in my mom’s SUV with the two kids, one is 9 months, and the other one is 8 years old. We couldn't back out because of trees down. We got the kids out and came back in...
Once we came back in, we called 911. On the third time of calling them, they answered. After talking to them I knew they were inundated with calls, so I was afraid they wouldn't get to us.
Down the road I saw someone chainsawing trees down. I ran down there, and asked him if he could help us. He was helping someone up the road get out. So I asked him if, when he was done, he would come help us. About 15 minutes passed, and we were seeing the fire grow. People were calling us, and asking if we were getting out, but we were trapped. He came back and started chainsawing, and as soon as he was done, we got into my dads old truck. Me, myself, the kids, my mom, and the other pets. Dad stayed behind. The police later retrieved him, and made him evacuate shortly after
By the time we got to the bottom of our hill, two houses behind Westgate, fire was all around. We were directed out of Gatlinburg, into Pigeon Forge, in the other lane on the spur. We could feel the fire all the way in the truck. Smoke was everywhere. We have never been so happy to breathe fresh air. That night we stayed at my cousins.
What we miss the most: our family heirlooms. And our pictures. We also miss the comfort of our home. We are grateful for everyone’s help but we certainly miss our home.
If people need to send donations to our family, they can send it to: the Compton Family, 1402 East Parkway Suite 6, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Thankfully, no one was at home during fire. David and Fran were out of town, Brannen was at work, and Claire was at college.
As real estate agents here in the Smokies, we have always told buyers to make sure they have adequate fire insurance. Our professional and volunteer fire departments are great, but because of the mountainous terrain, as we all witnessed two weeks ago, there is no way for fire crews to get to some of these locations and actively fight fires.
The Troxler Family is Mountain Strong, but only through Jesus. As the song lyrics go, “We are weak, but He is strong.” We are so grateful to God for sparing our lives, and we now want to use our lives to help our friends and neighbors, here in the Sevier County, Tennessee area, who are not as fortunate as us during this tragedy. Our physical home may be gone, but it can be rebuilt. If we had lost family members, we would never be able to get those physical lives back.
Gary and linda jackson
Gary and I lived in this home at 834 Leisure Lane for 16 1/2 years. His Mom, Virginia Jackson, lived with us almost 8 years. She passed away one week, to the day, before the fire.
We moved to Gatlinburg in January 1999 when we purchased an overnight rental business. We had always loved vacationing here. We were so blessed by the guests who came, and we loved sharing “our mountains" with them. Many of our homeowners and guests have become lifelong friends. We sold our business in January this year to spend more time with Mom Jackson, and give her the care and attention she needed and deserved. Mom passed away November 21.
Gary and I were out of town when the fire took our home. 2016 has been a hard year for us. Mom’s health deteriorated before our eyes. I had a heart attack in June, and lost a brother to brain cancer in September. We needed to get away for a few days. On the morning of November 29, we turned on the TV for the news and saw Gatlinburg burning! We could not believe our eyes!!! A couple of days later we learned our home was one of the many that was lost. We praised God that we were not there to evacuate. We know God’s hand was in our being away, and truly believe we would not have had time to get off the mountain, and very possibly could have died that night.
We really haven’t had time to grieve Mom’s death, and now we are dealing with the loss of our home. I think we will miss the future memories of the life of retirement in that home. Gary loved the view, and spent as much time as possible on the deck enjoying it. It was his favorite spot for communing with God and nature. We lost things and stuff. Almost 50 years of things and stuff! It can all be replaced. We have so many wonderful memories there, but we are alive and have each other. God is holding our hand and keeps us standing. We have learned this past year that Philippians 4:13 is a true and real promise. We CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens me (us). Our faith in God assures us that He “has this” and is in control of everything! We will be alright.
As for what you can do to help us, pray for all of us for guidance in this time of uncertainty, and help the ones who have no insurance coverage. Pray for Gatlinburg, and please return to our beautiful Smoky Mountains, which will assist all of us in our journey back to a more normal life.
The Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts was originally established in 1912. Seventy years later, Arrowmont is known for its craft workshops, conferences and symposia, and for its support of artists.
Monday, November 28, the city was filled with dense smoke from the fire burning at Chimney Tops in the Park. The fires seemed to spread everywhere almost at once. In a matter of hours, the initial feeling of security fled, and we began evacuating our campus.
With everyone safely evacuated, I worked to wet down the parts of buildings closest to the fires spreading down the hillside behind our campus. Fire had engulfed our maintenance building, and the Wild Wing and Hughes Hall dormitories. I left the campus to find help from a fire unit located by the Pi Beta Phi Elementary School. These firefighters followed me back to the School, and I am sure their actions were vital in protecting the rest of campus.
When I was forced to evacuate, the flames were pushing towards the heart of campus, and I left expecting the worst. As I made my way to my house, which was also under a mandatory evacuation order, the wind lessened, and a welcome rain was falling. Our home was spared.
Given the extent of the fire, and the incredible destruction all around, Arrowmont was very fortunate to lose only three buildings. My focus began to shift from what was lost to what had survived. Most importantly, all of our staff was safe, and no one lost their homes. What remained far outweighed what had been lost.
The Arrowmont staff was able to return to our campus on Monday, December 5, to begin planning for our recovery. However, our immediate focus was on what Arrowmont could do to reach out to artists and craftspersons and others in our community who were hurting. We partnered with Jerry’s Artarama from Knoxville to put together painting and drawing kits to distribute to children who have lost their homes but need, more than ever, something creative to do, and to have the means to express themselves. Arrowmont will offer scholarships to our Children’s classes and Community classes to those who lost their homes or studios.
The outpouring of concern and support for the School, and this community, has been humbling. We can never forget the horror of these fires, but we will always remember our local and national communities reminding us of the importance of what we do. Arrowmont will emerge from this experience stronger — with a deeper understanding of our importance to the local community, and recommitted to supporting artists and enriching lives through art.
Our workshops and conference schedule will not be affected, and our workshop descriptions are now online. To help Arrowmont recover, take a workshop and see what we do. Take the opportunity to learn something new, to have a creative experience, to gain a deeper understanding of others and yourself.
Visit our website to register for a workshop or make a financial donation.
I work at The Potter and The Park @ Maples Forge, a creative co-op for five artists. We were evacuated at 5:30 Monday night, and were barely able to see or breathe for all the smoke. There were cops, people, and pets everywhere.
When we got home, the power got knocked out, and we had limited phone service. We didn't know we would be in any danger on the east side of town, until the winds kicked up a bit (87mph).
We decided to play it safe and pack and leave our house, and help my 85 year old grandfather do the same, but our shared driveway was blocked by a huge downed pine tree that my brother and I had to cut up and remove. It was pretty stressful and scary! Our homes were okay. Escaped with minor wind damage, but the studio was a total loss.
We could only save an ash covered, all white pottery order. I miss the creative atmosphere, projects, teamwork, and the memories of working with my grandfather on many projects for the city. I lost my personal glaze recipes, a month of sculpture work, my handmade stamps, tools, racks, boards, and potters wheels. I need help raising money for replacing equipment and materials.
I went to work that morning, like I always do. By 9am I knew that something was wrong. I was working on Sevier County Ambulance Service. We did business as usual until later that evening. It was about 10 or 11pm that evening when I first got pulled into Gatlinburg for mutual aid with EMS response. On my way to staging I passed by my residence and it was still there. We continued to run several more calls and about 1–2am I was going to meet up with another GFD EMS unit. That’s when I passed my residence, and that’s when I saw that my house was gone.
I had to make the hardest phone call to my wife and kids, and tell them that everything we owned was gone. We are going to rebuild and this won’t run us off. We will be back. We (Fire, Police, and EMS) were just doing our jobs that night.
An American neighbor came knocking on my door telling me you need to get out and get your kids out. He repeated that over and over until he finally got me to understand it wasn’t safe for me and my family. We left Gatlinburg at 5pm. It was so hard to breathe.
I desperately need a permanent home. I go out daily trying to find something better and I haven’t had much luck. Last night I was staying at the shelter. I’m a single mom struggling to stay strong for my babies and find us a home. I need a place where I can feel secure for me and my two babies. We won’t be able to have a Christmas.
This is my family’s first home as a family... our pictures, special moments... we have worked so hard to begin our lives together, welcoming our new baby girl, and now we have nothing again.
We are needing to find a permanent home. I go out daily trying to found something better. Haven’t had much luck. The most desperate need is a home. We have no Christmas plans, our family is all scattered, we all lost our homes, my mom’s house burnt, my aunt and my husband’s family also lost everything.
Gifts for Fatima can be mailed to:
HECTOR CASTILLO & NORA DIAZ
We are staying in a friend’s dining room until we can find a permanent home. We left our home at 8:30 pm, and when we saw the fire coming down the hill we left with the clothes we had on. We got in our car and drove away with the fire burning our neighbor's house.
My husband and I came seeking a better opportunity in this church, and to help our family back home in Honduras. We both worked very hard, double shifts to have the few things we had. We miss everything about our home; pictures, special moments, being able to sleep on our bed, the joy of eating our native home-cooked food, and so many wonderful memories we shared together in this house.
Just today, we found an apartment to move into on Monday. We need furniture, beds and everything thing else to get started and back on our feet again. We have no Christmas plans. My wife is the only one who has immediate family here, and her sister also lost everything. We are hard working individuals, but with winter here, jobs are slowing down, no money on us, we are in great need. We never imagined having to start over this way. Any and all help is greatly appreciated.
Gifts for Hector & Nora can be mailed to:
Gatlinburg UMC, 742 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN 37738
We got word from friends that the fire had spread and Gatlinburg was being evacuated. The winds had grown ferocious, and trees began to fall. One large tree fell across Mark’s house, and another one across the driveway behind our parked cars, trapping us on the mountain. Authorities, as well as friends, tried to get to us, but were unable. The power went off and, we could see sparks flying through the treetops. I didn't know what to do, but began to pray hard, like I have never prayed before - that God would send someone to rescue us.
At that moment, I noticed headlights come on at the cabin below us. Mark ran down to catch them. It was a young couple and their baby, about to drive off and evacuate. They agreed to let us ride off the mountain with them.
Our 91-year-old Momma on her walker, Mark, me and L’il Kitty made our way down our driveway — through the wind, smoke and sparks blowing all around us — dodging fallen tree branches. Momma hurt her back hurrying up into the passenger seat of the 4WD truck. Steven, the young man said, “We have to go now!” The rest of us, packed in the cabin of the truck as close as sardines in a can — people, luggage, cat, baby and all, and Mark in the bed of the truck.
It got heated real quick, and my neighbor Chris was talking to his wife Marcy on the phone when the cell tower went out. Marcy was saying “We gotta go, we gotta go now!” when a tree fell behind the car. They were already wetting handkerchiefs, getting ready to walk down the mountain cause the car was trapped. She couldn’t get out. If Chris wouldn’t have came up at the time he did...
Embers were blowing from this way and all directions. My son was trying to cut the tree, but he couldn’t get the chainsaw started. He was cutting with a machete, and it just got to be too much. So Chris came up and saved their lives. They got out with about 10–15 minutes to spare. Their chances would have been real low cause they couldn’t even see anything due to how smoky it was.
My daughter is autistic, and a lot of autistic kids don’t have any core strength. They just don’t move like other kids do. She’s verbally autistic. She still smiles and loves and hugs like other kids do, she just can’t talk. We got the therapy horse to help her core strength. We also built a big rope swing that went out over that mountain, and she loved it. We built a big harness so she wouldn’t fall out. That was a gazebo over there. She had her little table with her colored stones from Mama, and it was her haven. And then she had this swing set she loved. I mean, it was every day, same thing. She loved it.
I’ve already noticed she’s lost muscle tone since the fires so we’re trying to get her back on track. We just moved the horse over to Sevier County and we see her on a daily basis now. The horse got burned in the fire, but she’s going to be okay. We’re glad she made it.
Nobody will ask for help. Everyone around here is real prideful. But even if they have nothing to give, they’ll give. Just to help somebody out. That’s just how it’s always been. That’s why I like it. Everyone knows everyone.
November 28 will forever be painted in my memory. I returned to Gatlinburg to start my life and career over since the loss of my spouse, the love of my life. I remember that day vividly.
I went that afternoon to the bookstore to purchase Dolly Parton’s book “The Coat of Many Colors” for my granddaughter. When I returned home, I got out of my car, and the smoke was very heavy. I saw what looked like snow, so I put my hand out and the small flake fell into my hand. I realized it was ash. I would have never thought that within a few hours I would be without my home. My belongings were reduced to ashes. I’m just grateful to have survived.