In 2016, wildfires erupted in the Great Smoky Mountains of Eastern Tennessee. Ironically, they started at a location known as Chimney Tops and then, fueled by hurricane strength winds, the fires barreled through the mountains toward Gatlinburg, a beautiful resort town at the entrance to the National Park.
Tennessee had been in significant drought and the woods were tinder dry. While the Chimney Tops fire was thought to be contained, nature changed that opinion quickly. We had been on the “quiet side” of the mountains, in Townsend, Tennessee, as a gift from our children for our 30th anniversary. Going home on November 28, 2016, we could see some smoke in the sky. When we stopped at a local store, a law enforcement officer was present, so we asked about the status of the fires. He said that they were not a worry, that they were contained, and he expected them to be extinguished that day or the next.
His expectation was not realized, however. That same afternoon saw winds as high as 87 miles per hour, which blew sparks from the existing fires to new dry tinder over a mile away. The winds created an additional fire hazard, as its strength blew down dried trees, which resulted in downed power lines that then contributed new sparks to the tinder beneath. Because of the loss of power and because some of the pumping stations had burned, hydrants went dry the next day.
Firefighters also were battling nature without the use of their two-way radios when the system failed, also the radios of different emergency agencies were not compatible. The 911 system could not handle all the calls it received, and the emergency operations center phone system went down completely when it lost power. Moreover, cellular towers were destroyed by the fires, so that cellular coverage became unreliable, thus rendering personal cell phone communications unreliable, at best.
All in all, the fires claimed at least 14 lives and injured 134 others. By December 12, the inferno had burned more than 10,000 acres (15 square miles) inside the national park and over 6,000 acres in surrounding areas outside the park. At least 14,000 residents and tourists were forced to evacuate and over 2000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
In short, it was an horrific sight to watch on television and the stories of terror that fell so swiftly are difficult to hear. Friends from church were in their cabin, atop one of the hills in the mountains when they smelled smoke. Thinking it was from their fireplace, the husband went from the bedroom to the front room, just to double-check. When he looked outside, he saw a wall of flames virtually at their lot line.
The two of them jumped into their car, leaving the other car behind, and headed down the mountain. Their trip took them along the mountain road with flames on both sides, smoke so heavy that they could not see the edge of the road. Finding one way blocked by fire equipment, they turned and went down another road. The trip that normally would take 45 minutes took several harrowing hours.
God was merciful. They escaped without harm. And, weeks after the fire when they were finally allowed to go back to their cabin, they found that their cabin was only minimally harmed by the flames and smoke. All the other cabins on their cul-de-sac were destroyed, burned down to the block foundation.
Many of the houses are being rebuilt, however it seems that just as many homes and businesses that were destroyed have not been touched.
Looking down from the deck of our friend’s cabin, one year after the inferno hit the mountains, it was encouraging as well as amazing to see the forest’s regrowth and reclamation of the land. God’s creation does not wait for man to hurry in and rebuild. Rather, His creation goes about the business of regrowth, of rebuilding the nutrients in the earth, of repopulating the animals, birds, and all that had been there before. They will return in their due time.
I am reminded of Noah and the flood. He and his family were tucked safely in the ark, along with their closest friends, the animals that were preserved from destruction. After the rains ended, the ark came to rest, and the humans were anxious to leave their floating residence. I would likewise have been in a hurry to get onto land after 150 days of rain, but they had to wait for the right time. God had closed the door to the ark and only He could open it. Genesis 7:16.
Noah’s tests to see if the waters had receded sufficiently are described in Genesis 8.
The point is that God commanded Noah to get into the ark, He commanded the animals to get into the ark, He commanded the waters to come, and He commanded the waters to recede. When all was sufficient for Noah to live on the earth, God told Noah to leave the ark, commanding him further to take the animals so that they could be fruitful and multiply.
The Gatlinburg fires caused numerous deaths and an untold amount of property damage. They caused grief and suffering on a massive scale. But, there is healing after the inferno. The forests show that healing in visible real terms. Other healing is more subtle and difficult to quantify, but it does come because God is leading us to heal.
“if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
2 Chronicles 7:14
Beloved, scripture teaches that healing will come. We need to follow God’s direction, His mandate, and humble ourselves, praying and turning from our wicked ways. We need to acknowledge that God is God and His ways are right, then we need to do that which He says. If we do that, He promises that He will hear us and will forgive us of our sin and heal our land.
The fires were horrible, no doubt about it. The loss of life was tragic and it sent families reeling in grief and pain, no doubt about it. But healing does come.
Seek Him and be healed.
Father, I pray that healing would come to our land, but I realize that first we must confess our sin. We have failed to follow Your low and we have not done that which Your Son commanded. We have not loved others more than ourselves; we have not treated the widow and stranger with love; we have not read Your Word and meditated on it day and night; we have …. Father, may we repent and turn to You today, before it is too late for us to do so.