Today’s New York Times has a heart-felt op-ed about the massive wildfire loss in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The author, Jason Howard, a teacher of writing and Appalachian studies at a Kentucky college, shares his memories of family visits to Gatlinburg and the Smokey Mountains growing up. He also laments the lack of national media attention to the impacts of the various fires in the Southeast and ponders the difference if these were million dollar homes in Malibu and not the residents of Appalachia.
I often use this space to remind readers and residents alike that, “wildfires are not just a western states issue”. The recent fires across the Southeast have put that into focus. Current loss estimates in Sevier County, TN, are over 700 homes destroyed, with half in Gatlinburg alone. Over 53 people have been treated in hospital. There are seven confirmed fatalities from the fire and several others currently reported as missing.
A part of me will always be haunted by reports of “missing” in such events. On 9-11, I worked for the National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO) in Washington, D.C., and received news from our national president, who at the time was the head of the New York Police Department’s Detective’s Endowment Association. The email, dated 13 September, shared the names of 38 detectives listed as missing, last known location, World Trade Center. I still have the printed email to remember the fallen, and hope that all the missing in Sevier County reconnect with their loved ones, unharmed.
The cause of the “Chimney Tops 2” wildfire is currently believed to be human-caused, fueled by dry conditions and strong winds.
Howard’s reflection in the op-ed about how Appalachia is viewed in common culture, on social media, and how these fires are being covered on national news cannot be ignored. In fairness, it is easier to give the “round the clock coverage” of fires when they are within helicopter flight distances from the Los Angeles media market then in Eastern Tennessee. If for nothing else, there aren’t as many media helicopters and places to refuel them rapidly. How Appalachia has historically been viewed though, and the support they will need in the coming months and years, is not in question.
I have family in Southwestern Virginia. My Dad’s side comes from Clifton Forge, in Allegheny County. Once the steam locomotive maintenance yards for the C&O Rail Road, it now struggles with the rest of “coal county” to keep its youth and identity. My years with Firewise took me on many visits to Appalachian communities and our great state partners. Previous work with the National Ready, Set, Go! Program took me across the rest of the South and illustrated to me the great and common threat of wildfire that we all face.
The geography and fuel type may be different, but the loss of homes, and lives, and the shattered dreams of families now facing the ultimate tragedy are the same wherever wildfire meets structures at risk.
Let’s all keep these fires in Appalachia and across the South on our minds in the days to come.