On this seventh anniversary of the deadly wildfire that ravaged Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains in 2016, UT Libraries invites the public to commemorate that catastrophic event by exploring the Libraries’ oral history project that documents the impact of the wildfires.
On November 23, 2016, an uncontained wilderness fire on the summit of Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, aided by winds approaching ninety miles-per-hour, jumped the park boundary and descended upon the tourist town of Gatlinburg. It wreaked a level of destruction that was later identified as the deadliest wildfire in the eastern US since the 1940s and one of the largest natural disasters in Tennessee history. Fourteen people perished, more than 200 were injured, and thousands were forced to evacuate. Over 17,000 acres were burned and nearly 2,600 buildings and homes were damaged or destroyed.
Oral History Project
In 2019, UT Libraries, with support from the City of Gatlinburg and in partnership with the Anna Porter Public Library, launched an oral history project to collect, preserve, and make accessible personal stories of the deadly Chimney Tops 2 wildfire. The project collaborators recorded interviews, primarily through video, with around 140 individuals who had firsthand experience of the wildfire, including first responders, homeowners, business owners, and government officials. Those firsthand accounts are being preserved in the UT Libraries’ archives as a lasting record of the community’s experience of the wildfire.
Interviews are also publicly available on a website hosted by the UT Libraries: Rising from the Ashes: The Chimney Tops 2 Wildfires Oral History Project. Visitors to the website can approach the topic through different lenses such as the evacuation efforts, the disaster response and recovery, or the ecological impact; hear from medical personnel, business owners, or individuals directly affected by the wildfire; or simply browse through the recorded interviews.
Artworks Promote Healing
A subsequent grant from the National Endowment from the Arts funded a further initiative intended to promote community healing from the traumatic events of November 2016. Wildfire Recovery through Art and Public Memory, in 2020, commissioned renowned artists Paige Braddock, Marshall Ramsey, and Danny Wilson to create editorial illustrations inspired by the oral histories. The artists were given access to the project’s digital archive of oral interviews and were asked to respond creatively to what they heard and read.
Those artworks were compiled into a book available from the University of Tennessee Press: Rising from the Ashes: The Chimney Tops 2 Wildfires in Memory and Art. The art also can be viewed online at rfta-artists.lib.utk.edu. Visitors to the website can see how the illustrators — drawing inspiration from the interviews recorded by the oral history project — used their skills as graphic artists to raise awareness of the wildfire and the emotional and environmental scars left in its wake. On the website, each artwork is paired with the specific oral history interview that inspired the drawing under the tab “Related Resource.”
Some of those illustrations are currently on display at UT’s Hodges Library in the first-floor exhibit area as part of a larger exhibit on The Art of the Editorial Cartoon.
The oral histories and the drawings bear witness to historical events and commemorate the heroism and compassion of the community that came together to confront and heal from the devastating impact of the wildfire.
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