Saturday 11:00am: At this writing, the death toll from the ferocious wildfire that erupted across the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has risen to 13, with most of the victims still remaining unidentified.
The grisly total is likely to increase as officials continue to search and assess the damage. One person told me that the true death toll is perhaps three times the currently reported number. The good news is that at this time search crews say they have found "quite a few" of the 70 or so people who were reported missing. The truth is that we may never know the true final tally. Friday and Saturday mornings here I spent hours on the phone hearing some of the damn wildest, most disturbing stories from people who fled the fire.
The stories ranged from seeing buck naked people racing from the fire, to reports that more water was coming out of the Gatlinburg waste water treatment facility than there was flow in the Little Pigeon River passing through the town. One bit of good news too is from Chad Williams of Smoky Angler Fly Shop who says that while there is an undetermined degree of smoke damage, their structure did not perish. They expect to be open in a little over a week, and well in advance of Christmas.
While arson is strongly suspected in the start of the problem, numerous conversations this with close friends and associates in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge found me confronted with many fingers pointed angrily at the National Park Service. They are unhappy that the Chimney Tops fire smoldered virtually unabated for weeks. To reduce future loss of lives and property, others want a moratorium on cabin construction on ridge top lands near the national park in Sevier County.
The true culprit of the tragedy certainly is the record setting drought set the stage for this and other fire disasters in the Southern Appalachians. Clearly everyone was unprepared for fires of this unprecedented magnitude. The aftermath is tragic, but at this time the best future course is to be better prepared and more proactive in dealing with all wild fires. Perhaps too, arson needs to be made a capital crime.