Hessmer woman recalls Gatlinburg before the fire


   Images of destruction in Gatlinburg, Tenn., have been featured on TV, online and newspapers since a wildfire in the Smokey Mountains hit the tourist town on Nov. 27. For one Avoyelles Parish resident, those images are especially painful.
   “I left a piece of my heart in Gatlinburg,” Jessica Juneau, of Hessmer, said.
    Juneau spent the Thanksgiving holiday in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Gatlinburg. She left that Saturday evening and got home Sunday morning.
   “When I was there, it was business as usual and really hopping,” Juneau said. “I have gone to Gatlinburg for the last four or five years to hike in the mountains. It is one of my favorite places.
   “I was staying in the National Park outside of town,” she continued. “There was a drought, so it was dry and the river was low. 
Smoke on Chimney Top
   “The only problem was that one trail, Chimney Top, was closed to the public because there was a wildfire in that area,” she said. “You could see smoke coming from that area, but they said they had the fire under control. I usually hike that trail when I go to the National Park.”
    The Chimney Top fire began on Nov. 23, officials said. Over the next few days, high winds fanned the flame. It quickly spread to eventually rage through 17,000 acres, destroying 700  homes and businesses in Gatlinburg, Sevier County and neighboring communities. The fire displaced 14,000 Gatlinburg residents, injured over 80 people and claimed at least 11 lives. The death count could rise as home sites in the mountainous area are reached and searched. 
    Juneau said a lot of traffic was coming into town on Black Friday and that Saturday, planning to stay in the scenic tourist destination for the holiday weekend.
   “It is very, very popular,” Juneau said. “People come from all over the country.
   “I will go back again,” she continued. “I am sure it will be rebuilt. I love it so much. It is so beautiful.”
   Juneau said watching news reports about the tragedy make her want to go back and try to help the town recover.
Victim aid efforts
    Juneau is not the only person moved by the stories, videos and photographs of the fire.
   The Red Cross said it  has received enough food, water, clothing and other items to address the emergency. Firefighters were also dreading the potential impact of projected high winds in the still smoldering areas that have been brought under control.
   Investigators have determined the fire was “human caused,” but have not declared it to be arson. U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents have joined the investigation.
   Gatlinburg’s spirit remains unbroken by the tragedy, Mayor Mike Werner said. Werner lost his home and business in the fire.
   "Gatlinburg is the people. That's what Gatlinburg is,” Werner said. “It's not the buildings. It's the people."