Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Speech: Sevier County Fires

Posted on November 30, 2016

I come to the floor to speak on two matters. The first is the matter of wildfires in Tennessee. Anybody who's been watching television the last few days has seen the devastation caused by the runaway wildfires just outside the Great Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. 

Mr. President, in Tennessee we're not used to that. I know we have debates on the floor and we have colleagues who see the fires in the west where it doesn't rain much, maybe a few inches of rain a year. But in the Great Smoky Mountains where I live just outside of the park, we have 80, or 83 inches of rain a year. So we have dense forests. And this time of year the leaves are all over the ground and usually there's a lot of rain to tamp that down. 

But for the last few months we've not had rain, and the forest floor was just like a tinderbox. So on Monday in the Chimney Tops area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a fire somehow started. And winds as high as 80 to 90 miles an hour came and swept the fire through the park and into the resort town of Gatlinburg.

There were stories of firefighters getting back in their trucks to avoid the bears who were fleeing the fire. 

There were stories of cars catching fire as motorists drove to escape the fire. A couple from Alabama said they watched their windshield wipers melt on the car as they drove down the mountain. 

At least four people have been killed. There are others who are missing. 

Fortunately, the fires have been put out pretty much by now. There were no new fire outbreaks in Pigeon Forge which is nearby. Gatlinburg had a similar fire but the rain last night helped put most of those out. 

But approximately 14,000 citizens were evacuated from Sevier County and that small town of Gatlinburg, a picturesque community on the edge of the Smokies where people for years have gone for their honeymoons and vacations. 

The Red Cross and individual organizations have operated six shelters. 

The mayor of Gatlinburg told people his home was burned up in 15 minutes. The city manager's home was burned up. 

We have had a tremendous response from the governor of our state, Governor Haslam who was on the spot the next day with many of his state officials. There are 400 firefighters. There are more than 100 fire trucks who came from all parts of Tennessee. National guardsmen, highway patrolmen. 

The governor said that he hadn't seen a fire like that in Tennessee in 100 years. As I said, approximately 14,000 people have been evacuated. 

So this is a heart breaking story for all of us who know and love the Great Smoky Mountains and the people who live near there, and I want the residents of Sevier County and Gatlinburg and that area to know that Senator Corker and I, and all of us in the federal delegation, will do what we can appropriately do to help. 

That starts with helping pay for 75 percent of the cost of fighting the fires, and after that, cooperating with Governor Haslam as the state looks for ways to help individuals who might be hurt by this. 

I know that the Mayor of Gatlinburg and the city manager and Larry Waters, the county mayor, would want me to say that this is a resilient town and resilient people, and they're going to be fine, but it's going to be tough and hard. Fire always is. 

But Dollywood will be open at 2:00 P.M. on Friday, people will be coming back. About 10 million visitors come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park every year. So we don't want people to stay away. But I do want the people of Gatlinburg and Sevier County to know how much we care for them and how determined we are to help them help themselves get back on their feet.