Wildfires ravaged the hills, homes, and businesses in and around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, last week. More than 1,400 structures, like this house on a ridge south of town, were destroyed. Photo by Shawn Poynter

The wildfires that killed 14 people and decimated the vacation town of Gatlinburg have also affected the livelihoods of thousands of people who own businesses or work in the city’s tourism industry.

But some workers are optimistic that the town will recover quickly.

At least half of the 6,000 jobs in Gatlinburg were in industries related to tourism, according to 2012 Census data. A similar percentage is employed in tourism-related work in surrounding Sevier County, according to a report by Headwaters Economics. Gatlinburg is an Eastern U.S. tourism mecca, sitting astride the entrance to the nation’s most visited national park, the Great Smoky Mountains.

The fire is having an immediate economic impact. Shops, restaurants, and attractions like the Ripley’s aquarium are closed, and the town is devoid of visitors.

Residents and workers are being allowed back in today (December 7). The public is barred until Friday.

But residents who are familiar with the tourism trade said the city will bounce back quickly.

“I think morbid curiosity will bring some people in, and a lot of the city was spared as far as the main strip,” said Victoria McCaa, who works at the Park Grill downtown. Her husband and brother in law also have tourism-related jobs. “So hopefully we’ll be able to recover and rebuild quickly.”

Victoria McCaa, front left, with her husband, Richard, and family in front of her parents-in-law’s home, which was spared in the fires, just south of downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Photo by Shawn Poynter

Mary Gabel, whose husband works at the Town Square resort, also was optimistic. She said she expected some tourists to make a special point of visiting Gatlinburg soon.

“As soon as they let people in, they’ll start pouring back in here,” she said. “If nothing else, I think, to show support for the area, to show that they love the mountains and love coming here.”

The Smokies were already past prime “leafing” season before the fire struck, so the number of visitors was not at its peak. The winter is normally quieter but picks up between the holidays.

Chris Mehl of Headwaters Economics, which focuses on land management and development policy in the West, said the work disruption will be hard for some families. Headwaters studied the economies of two Yellowstone gateway communities, Gardiner and West Yellowstone, Montana, after massive wildfires.

“We’ve found that those hit hardest are the workers who are the most vulnerable,” Mehl said. “These are people who can’t relocate to find other work.”

Headwaters has created an interactive map  (screen capture below) tracking wildfires of 100 acres or more from 2000 to 2014. The map shows that the West was obviously the nation’s hotspot during the period. Fires were reported from Texas up through the Rocky Mountain states and the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest. There are so many fires marked in California, it’s hard to see the state’s borders on the map.

Fires in the East of 100 acres or more are largely confined to the Southern coast and the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Mehl said there are likely to be more fires in the East in coming years because of climate change.

Headwaters helps communities integrate wildfire mitigation with land-use planning, he said. Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW) provides communities with expertise in land-use planning, forestry, risk assessment, and research and science to reduce wildfire risks. Participating communities are selected through an application process, which will reopen in spring 2017.

An interactive map produced by Headwaters Economics shows the incidence of wildfires of 100 acres or more from 2000 to 2014. More fires are expected in the East in the future because of climate change, said Chris Mehl of Headwaters.

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