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Guard Assists Wildfire Fight in Smoky Mountains

With hurricane-force winds driving fires towards east Tennessee travel sites, Guard Soldiers are responding to help the local communities
Tennessee is among a handful of states where National Guard members are involved in batting wildfires. Photo by SSG Roberto Di Giovine
Tennessee is among a handful of states where National Guard members are involved in batting wildfires. Photo by SSG Roberto Di Giovine
Photo from Tennessee National Guard
Photo from Tennessee National Guard

NASHVILLE, TN As fires of historic proportion raged in late November in the Great Smoky Mountains, more than 200 Tennessee Army National Guard Soldiers mobilized to east Tennessee to assist Sevier County Emergency Management personnel with transporting first responders, removing light debris and assisting with health and welfare checks.

Soldiers from units in Maryville, Pigeon Forge, Morristown, Newport, Greeneville, Lenoir City, Knoxville and Bristol moved to the operations center in Pigeon Forge to assist the Tennessee Highway Patrol and help local responders with debris removal and transportation throughout the affected area.

The firestorm began on Nov. 28 when hurricane-force winds—at speeds approaching 90 mph—spread embers from a 500-acre wildfire near the Chimney Tops trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park toward Gatlinburg, according to The Tennessean. The winds knocked down power lines and toppled trees, igniting several new fires that raged through the resort town and surrounding Sevier County communities, CNN reported. The network added that authorities issued evacuation orders for Gatlinburg and nearby areas, including the north end of Pigeon Forge, known for its tourist attractions and home to Dollywood, a theme park owned by singer and actress Dolly Parton. 

Flames reached the outskirts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, forcing 14,000 people to evacuate, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said. Fourteen people were killed in the wildfires, and The Tennessean reported another 160 people were treated for fire-related injuries or illnesses. Nearly 1,800 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed by flames.

The Tennessee National Guard was also involved in firefighting efforts in the weeks leading up to the Gatlinburg area fires, providing local responders with UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters equipped with Bambi Buckets to fight blazes in southeastern Tennessee. 

Major General Terry M. “Max” Haston, the Tennessee adjutant general, says situations like these are why the Guard is important. “The Tennessee National Guard is uniquely qualified to not only fight our nation’s wars, but also to respond to emergency operations here at home,” Haston says. “We are working closely with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, numerous other state agencies and the local responders in Sevier and surrounding counties to assist in whatever is required to save lives and property.”