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1 month after a tragic fire, Gatlinburg victims show ’deep-rooted resiliency’ as they prepare to rebuild in 2017

On Nov. 28, a massive wildfire ripped through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, taking 13 lives and destroying whatever lay in its path. The fire left massive piles of charred rubble in its wake.

A little more than a month later, the community of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge looks to start 2017 with one goal: rebuild.

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"You really get a true testament of who people are when you have a tragedy like this," Jeff Conyers of the Dollywood Foundation said. "You have a deep-rooted resiliency with the people who have lived in these mountains."

Jeff Conyers is the executive director of the foundation, which has been instrumental in helping the victims of Gatlinburg piece their lives back together.

"The fire caught a lot of people off guard," Conyers said. "It was the perfect storm [for the fire]."

Gatlinburg is not only home to Dollywood, the famed amusement park named after country music legend Dolly Parton, but also the hometown to the park's namesake. Parton and her team put together the My People Fund, which provides $1,000 a month to people who have lost their homes in the fire.

The fund has distributed almost $9,000 to families. Conyers said it has already reached and most likely surpassed its goal of $9 million.




"The response has been overwhelming, not only from the whole country but from people around the community," said Conyers.

The foundation posted a series of videos on its Facebook page a few weeks ago of victims sharing their stories.

"We're just starting over. It's just memories you can't replace," said one gentleman who had lost his family home. "Your albums, your videos, all the years."

"I'm just so thankful that our lives were spared," said one woman.

The damage is widespread through the town. Conyers said that over 2,400 structures were destroyed in the fire. The financial damage is reportedly estimated at $500 million.

Some parts of town were able to escape the fire's destruction and continue operating. Other areas, especially up on the mountain, weren't so lucky.

"The destruction is just immense," said Scott O'Neal of Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. "I hate to say it looks like a war zone, but just complete destruction."

The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has been on the ground working with the Dollywood Foundation in its efforts to raise money for Gatlinburg. O'Neal himself visited the town to help deliver $200,000 worth of Dollar General gift cards to families in need. He said the stories of the people and the sense of community have been nothing short of incredible.

"It was pretty fascinating to talk to someone who had been right in the middle of it and was suffering tremendous loss but was more interested in how they could help other people rebuild," O'Neal said.

The feeling of helping other people, according to O'Neal, is wonderful. "You're being Santa Claus," he said.

The combination of a southern drought and high winds gave an already rumbling forest fire new life as it engulfed the Smokey Mountain town.

But as the new year begins, so does the rebuild. However, it won't happen overnight.

"The trick is sustained recovery," Conyers said. "These recoveries don't happen in a month; they happen, in some cases, over the course of a few years."

"The public's memory is short," O'Neal said. "This will go away in the public eye, but we need to keep telling this story."

While there are many ways to help, according to Conyers, the best way to help the community isn't by sending supplies or funds from a computer screen.

"Come visit," he said. "The shops and businesses are open... our economy is built on families coming to visit. That's the best thing you can do."

To help the people of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, please visit mountaintough.org or CFMT.org.