City of Gatlinburg reopens after deadly Sevier County wildfires

(Courtesy: WJHL/Ted Overbay)

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WKRN) – The barriers are down, and, after one of the worst fires in Tennessee history, the City of Gatlinburg has been reopened.

The city opened up a little ahead of schedule at 6 a.m. Friday morning, allowing businesses, residents, and tourists to slowly get back to their new state of normal.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the nation. Gatlinburg alone gets more than 11 million visitors per year, and local officials say it’s crucial people not cancel their plans to visit.

PHOTOS: Wildfires in East Tennessee

(Photo: WKRN)
(Photo: WKRN)

“We would kindly ask that you all come back here and visit us,” O’Neill said. “I know that seems to be asking a lot, but spring break, summer vacation and Christmas is our economy here. If you could please come back, that’s all we can ask,” said Joey O’Neill, supervisor of Ripley’s 5D Theater.

The past two weeks haven’t been easy for anyone who lives or works around Gatlinburg after the wildfires killed 14 people and damaged or destroyed more 2,400 buildings.

“I know a lot of people, some of my coworkers, they lost their homes to some of the destruction, and some people I know actually lost their lives. It is been a real struggle,” said Shannon Faulkner.

Faulkner lost his home to the fires and he’s been without a place to work for almost two weeks.

But on Friday, it was back to work–a kind of escape from the heartbreak he and his family have had to endure.

“It has been good getting back to work and cleaning up and straightening up and getting things ready to open up,” Faulkner told News 2.

(Photo: WKRN)

While the loss of his home is on his mind, a few hours at work hanging with coworkers and friends can take his mind off the destruction for a little while– something his general manager says is needed for many who live and work here.

“And that is one thing we are excited for today, get back to some normalcy. Folks get back to work and get back to building Gatlinburg to what it is,” said Michael Smith, general manager of Cooter’s.

Once the city opened, cars filled the roadways and people filled the sidewalks.

“It’s good to see the people coming back, supporting the community, coming back and showing Gatlinburg that they haven’t forgotten about us and coming back to help us rebuild,” Faulker noted.

News 2 also spoke with Casey More, who made a sign to show support for the city.

“The plan is just to give people hope that Gatlinburg is going to be okay,” Moore said. “And the people are going to be okay, and there was a great loss but it is a good community and we are going to rebuild it.”

The two main fires, the Chimney Top 2 fire, which is 91 percent contained, and the Cobbly Nob fire, which is 92 percent contained, are still burning but no longer spreading.

Prosecutors charged two juveniles with starting the fires on Wednesday. Due to their age, their identities have not been released. Officials said they are Tenenssee residents but don’t live in Sevier County.

Click here for complete coverage of the Sevier County wildfire.