GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) – Nearly three months have passed since the devastating wildfires in Sevier County that killed 14 people and caused nearly a billion dollars in damage. Two juveniles were charged with starting the fire on Chimney Tops mountain, which eventually spread to Gatlinburg and the surrounding area.
On Thursday, news crews were able to survey the damage in the Chimney Tops first hand as officials allowed the media to hike up the trail for the first time.
They were told to expect charred remains and fire damage along the entire trail, but the first 1.9 miles – the river crossing, the stairs put in place as part of the Forever Trails project – were all still intact. About 90 percent of the Chimney Tops Trail remains unscathed.
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About halfway up is a fire line created by a hand crew and soon the steep, scarred terrain near the top was visible. The slopes, estimated to be at nearly an 80 percent or greater incline, made setting fire lines more difficult. Many have asked why the fire lines were set at 410 acres when the fire was much smaller at the time.
“If you have a fire on that steep of a slope, it can just flop over. You have to tie in with an area that will stop the movement on the ground,” said Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokesperson Dana Soehn.
At 1.9 miles, the damage becomes evident. The National Park Service said that is the area where the fire burned the most intensely. Most of the trail is gone and the area is littered with debris, downed trees and twisted roots. There is also some evidence of landslides in the area.
“It’s important to us, especially with the investment we’ve made to this trail with the Trails Forever project, is to allow the public to again experience this and not let the devastation take this trail away from all of us,” said Soehn.
Park officials say they hope to open the first 1.9 miles of the Chimney Tops Trail to the public by summer, but the rest of the trail will not be open at all this year.
“We need to let the rest of trail set and give it time to heal before we can do any type of future work on it,” said Soehn. “It wouldn’t be sustainable for us to build something on an unstable slope.”
Officials say 11,000 acres burned inside the park, but about 7,000 of those are considered low, meaning mainly brush burned and no long term damage is expected. They say it could take 80 years for the vegetation at the top of the trail to return to pre-fire levels.