Prior to the one-year anniversary of the historic wildfires that struck Great Smoky Mountains National Park and this East Tennessee community, the city of Pigeon Forge reunited, for the first time, first responders from 39 of the 64 fire stations who came to the city’s aid on Nov. 28, 2016.
City officials invited more than 300 first responders to a surprise ceremony on Tuesday, Nov. 7, to unveil a permanent tribute wall as a lasting symbol of the town’s gratitude and appreciation for their efforts. In addition to the first responders, the tribute wall is dedicated to those from all walks of life who came to the city’s aid. While the first responders battled the blaze, donations poured into Pigeon Forge from across the country, including food, bottled water, and clothing as well as assistance from individuals who volunteered countless hours. Donations continued in the weeks that followed.
First responders spent the afternoon before the dedication ceremony enjoying lunch in the apparatus bay of the Pigeon Forge Fire Department. Over Southern favorites of fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, green beans, cornbread and sweet tea, first responders reminisced about their roles on that November day. The fire hall received an unprecedented number of food donations in the days and weeks immediately following Nov. 28. From individuals who prepared meals in their home kitchens to restaurants throughout East Tennessee, an endless supply of meals, snacks, beverages and other items, along with volunteers to serve them, kept first responders nourished.
“In the firefighting and first responder family, the shared experience of battling any event, but especially one of this magnitude, weighs heavily on our hearts and minds,” said Pigeon Forge Fire Department Chief Tony Watson. “This is the first time our greater family has had an opportunity to share our stories and the powerful emotions associated with them. It was a day to remember, share stories, hugs, and a few tears.”
Entitled For Those Who Answered The Call, the tribute wall anchors the city’s Patriot Park and features original artwork by Nashville-based designer Josh Ford. Iconic representations of Pigeon Forge, the Great Smoky Mountains and first responders are etched into the 4,400-pound 10-foot by 10-foot stainless steel wall inside a heart, a symbol of the community, its residents and the more than 10 million visitors who travel to the vacation destination each year. The opposite side lists various local, state and national agencies, organizations and businesses that supported the community during the event. Included among the entries is entertainment legend Dolly Parton, who spearheaded a telethon that raised more than $9 million to aid people affected by the fire.
“Pigeon Forge owes an immeasurable debt of gratitude to so many but especially our first responders who selflessly and tirelessly gave of themselves to protect Pigeon Forge. This tribute wall will forever represent every person in every city and town who thought of us in our time of need. From prayers and food to monetary donations and supplies, folks across the country and around the world carried Pigeon Forge through this event. This is our lasting tribute to every act of generosity and kindness shown us,” said Pigeon Forge City Manager Earlene Teaster.
“We often think of our community as our immediate surroundings,” said Pigeon Forge Mayor David Wear. “This event greatly demonstrated that the Pigeon Forge community extends far beyond our city’s boundaries and includes people from around the world, many who have visited Pigeon Forge and some who simply feel a strong affinity for the Smoky Mountains. All of them answered the call, as did the first responders who were on the front lines.”
The November 2016 wildfires burned a total of 17,140 acres in Sevier County. The wildfires originated from multiple locations including an arson fire set at Chimney Tops inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park and from downed power line ignitions throughout the county. Fueled by extreme winds and dry weather, the firestorm resulted in 14 fatalities, 190 injured individuals, damage to approximately 2,500 structures, and an estimated $500 million in damage.