Charred Smokies town rebounds, doubts fires are ‘new normal’

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Bob Bentz had just installed underground utility lines and paved a new road when wildfires roared through the eastern Tennessee treetop canopy he wanted to transform into a $30 million adventure park.

A year later, after the blaze killed 14 people and damaged or destroyed about 2,500 buildings in the Gatlinburg area, tourists now take a ski lift from downtown up 600 feet to the Anakeesta resort, where they can zip-line, shop, explore a treehouse playground and wander tree to tree on a sky-bridge. The otherwise whimsical park saved space at its highest point for a memorial walk, featuring photos and stories about the heroism, heartbreak and raw destructive force of the fires.

Despite such somber reminders, Bentz is sticking with his plan and, like others, forging ahead, even after a National Parks Service report said the conditions that let flames burn into the city could become the “new normal.”

Climate change, the report concluded, has coupled with other factors to expose more areas like the Great Smoky Mountains foothills to wildfires. The report suggests a new level of vulnerability, with sweeping implications for some of the nation’s most revered wilderness areas and the tourism economy that surrounds them.

But Bentz and city and county officials are unconvinced. They say it’s unlikely that Gatlinburg will again endure a perfect storm of factors that caused the blaze. Teens were playing with matches in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, winds whipped up to about 100 miles per hour to carry embers for miles and down powerlines to start more fires, and months of drastic drought created the perfect dry kindling.

Other businesses are investing with the same confidence. A $35 million Margaritaville Resort is slated to open in Gatlinburg this spring. And two other hotels are already up and running since the fires.

“I’m a believer in climate change,” said Bentz, Anakeesta’s managing partner, who has a forestry background. “But I don’t think we have concern about another fire coming to Gatlinburg and doing the same kind of damage.”

Though downtown Gatlinburg was essentially untouched by the fire, and Sevier County was open for business quickly afterward, it cost an extra $1 million-plus in Gatlinburg advertising and more state money to convey that to travelers.

It took a persistent campaign with simple messaging — “If you want to help, come visit” — to draw people back.

Most of the damage in Gatlinburg was to residential buildings, and more than half of those were second homes or rental cabins, said Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Ogle.

“A lot of folks thought everything in Gatlinburg and Sevier County burned down,” said Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.