February 2017

On November 23, 2016, a fire started along the Chimney Tops 2 that would eventually spread throughout Gatlinburg and become the worst fire in Tennessee in the last 100 years. The fire claimed 14 lives and destroyed over 2,000 homes and businesses.

As the devastation became apparent, Nashville-based photographer Jeremy Cowart had an idea to use his camera to bring healing and awareness to those whose lives would forever be touched by this tragedy.

With a volunteer crew Cowart photographed families on a white mattress contrasted by the dark rubble of their destroyed homes. The photographs were taken using a camera attached to a drone. The following powerful images, along with many others, showed the world the magnitude of the devastation, and yet within each there is hope, compassion, and resolution. You can see more of the images at www.voicesofgatlinburg.com. Please visit the GIVE section on the site if you would like to donate to a particular family. Our sincere thanks to Jeremy Cowart for creating this important and sensitive body of work.

For more information, visit www.jeremycowart.com and www.voicesofgburg.com.

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.

If you would like to help those who were affected by the wildfires, please visit www.mountaintough.org

Claudia López

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.

Christen Salter

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.

Kirk Fleta

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 a work of art using solid Oak and Eastern Cedar.

It was just a two-story shed, 720sqft, 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 mischievious 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!

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