Dollywood with Chimney Tops 2 fire in the background (Bruce McCamish Photography)
Oral History Project Recalls Chimney Tops 2 Wildfires
November 30, 2021

November 30, 2021—An oral history project led by the University of Tennessee Libraries records the lived experiences of the Chimney Tops 2 wildfires that swept through Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains five years ago. Today the UT Libraries launched a website that shares interviews collected by Rising from the Ashes: The Chimney Tops 2 Wildfires Oral History Project.

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, wreaking 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. The social, cultural, economic, political, and natural impacts of this event are still being calculated.

Filming for the Rising from the Ashes oral history project

Rising from the Ashes: The Chimney Tops 2 Wildfires Oral History Project is a project led by the UT Libraries in collaboration with the City of Gatlinburg and the Anna Porter Public Library. Rising from the Ashes has collected nearly 140 audio and video interviews with individuals who were impacted by or involved in the wildfires. The oral histories include interviews with those who lost homes and businesses, first responders, recovery specialists and representatives from charitable and volunteer organizations, government officials, fire and forestry experts, scientists, artists, lawyers, journalists, clergy, mental health professionals, educators, and many others. More than 40 of the interviews were recorded by the Anna Porter Public Library in the months following the wildfires and were donated to UT Libraries as part of this project.

“This project documents one of the most momentous events in modern Tennessee history — in the voices of those who lived it,” said Steve Smith, dean of the UT Libraries. “The collected stories document more than tragedy, however; they testify to the resilience of the human spirit. Our team is honored to help preserve these stories for history, study, learning, and research.”

Visitors to the Rising from the Ashes 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 wildfires; or simply browse through the recorded interviews.

All interviews are preserved for posterity in the UT Libraries’ Betsey B. Creekmore Special Collections and University Archives.

Above: Dollywood with the Chimney Tops 2 wildfire in the background (Bruce McCamish Photography)