Wildfires cause tragedy in East Tennessee

Kelby Fruecht stands amongst the ruins of his family’s Gatlinburg home following wildfires on Monday Nov. 29. Photo courtesy of Kelby Fruecht
Kelby Fruecht stands amongst the ruins of his family’s Gatlinburg home following wildfires on Monday Nov. 29. Photo courtesy of Kelby Fruecht.

Over the course of the past few weeks, Tennessee and surrounding states have been affected by numerous wildfires, threatening the lives and homes of citizens in the area. On Nov. 29, the wildfires became heightened as hurricane force winds began to carry flames further down from a fire that had started on the Chimney Tops trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

What was already a difficult situation quickly escalated and became a nightmare as the town of Gatlinburg and the area of Sevierville became threatened by the flames.

That night, the Gatlinburg Fire Department called a mandatory evacuation of all Gatlinburg residents. Fires quickly began to rage within resided communities in the mountains and made its way down into the tourist downtown area. This put many homes and businesses at risk.

Firefighters worked hard to try to contain the fire as much as possible while helping residents and tourists evacuate the area. According to both WBIR and WVLT, the National Guard was sent in addition to help with the situation and both the National Guard and firefighters have been fighting the fires since.

Since the fires began, WBIR reports that over 17,000 acres have burned in and near the Gatlinburg area. The disaster has also ended in 13 reported fatalities, according to an article published by WBIR. The community hoped for rain which quickly came as the state was swarmed with severe storms that hit the area the next day.

However, the rain was not enough to end the blaze completely. James Fowler, student of Maryville College and volunteer firefighter, was on standby waiting to help aid the fight against the fires.

“Large wildfires have their own climates and the rain doesn’t make much of a difference with the heat of a large fire. However, rain can wet down the surrounding areas and slow the progression of the fires enough for the crews to make a proper fire line and keep it from spreading,” said Fowler. “The damage has already been done in Gatlinburg, but the rain will help keep new fires from starting.”

However, the East Tennessee community has been met with a multitude of support. Numerous groups have offered donations to the Red Cross’s efforts in Gatlinburg. Social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram quickly filled with condolences to the community in addition to prayers and efforts to make donations. Even hashtags such as #SaveTheSmokies and #SmokiesStrong have been created online.

In addition to the damage, many houses and cabins were also destroyed by the Gatlinburg fires. One of those homes belonged to Maryville College student Kelby Fruecht. A senior at MC, Fruecht is set to graduate early in December and is a music major from Naples, FL.

Fruecht’s family’s cabin was located in the spur of Gatlinburg in the Norton Creek neighborhood area. He was commuting to and from his Smoky Mountain home while finishing his last semester at Maryville.

According to Fruecht, on Monday, Nov. 28, he was traveling back home from campus when he stopped at a grocery store to grab some groceries before heading in for the night. When he arrived at the store, he was surprised by a text from a friend, informing him of the fire and asking him if he was safe. Fruecht was unaware that the fires had reach his area of the mountains.

“I grabbed a sandwich and attempted to make it home but it was blocked by a huge barricade,” said Fruecht.

Fruecht got a hotel room around 9:30 PM for the night since he could not return to his cabin. According to Fruecht, he did not know the current status of his home. At 10:30 PM, he received a phone call from his dad stating that he knew the fire alarms were going off in his home.

“I called 911 to report it, but with how busy the fire department was, I am not sure they were able to reach that area,” said Fruecht.

On Tuesday, Fuecht attempted to travel back up to his neighborhood to check the status of his home after the fires has died down in his area. He was not aware of what damage had been done. Fruecht was able to find a back road that led to his cabin and drove to find his home completely burned.

“I started assessing what I had in my car which included the clothes I had, my camera, laptop, school bag, sneakers and a pair of vans,” said Fruecht.

The items in Fruecht’s car were all that he had left after the fires. Along with the cabin itself, Fruecht also lost several expensive items including instruments, DJ equipment, clothes, recording equipment and other personal belongings.

“I DJ as a job, and I had to stop by work to let them know that all of my equipment was gone,” said Fruecht. “I can’t recover my recorded work that I had made progress on.”

Fruect had been working on a portfolio to show future job prospects that he had attended to apply for in Texas, Seattle and other cities. He stated that he will go back to his home in Naples after graduation and start over. For now, Fruecht is staying on the MC campus in a dorm so that he can finish out the remainder of the semester.

“You lose stuff, but at the end of the day I realized that the material things don’t matter,” said Fruecht. “You sacrifice all that time to buy stuff, just for those things to be burned in a matter of seconds. I’m alive. I’m okay, and I can only go up from here.”

Despite all the tragedy happening around him, Fruecht is keeping a positive outlook on everything and even a sense of humor. According to Fruecht, this experience has given him a new perspective on the materialism that sometimes we can be caught up in.

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