Reflections on the destructive wildfires in East Tennessee

C.J. Lewandowski - photo by Peter Wroblewski‎As I sit down to write tonight, there is a lit candle putting off a beautiful warm glow, with a slight fragrance of fir. I pack my pipe, and light it, and the smoke begins to fill my office. Then, I realize something. These things that I do, as my own method of relaxation, has reaped havoc in my county for the past 48 hours. I bought that exact candle in Pigeon Forge, TN. My pipe and tobacco was made and mixed in Gatlinburg from a business that’s been there over 40 years. How can something that feels so peaceful to me have scared me to death less than 48 hours ago? How can the smoke that fills the room be welcomed, while it drove people out of their homes and businesses Monday night? How could these things steal my livelihood over night?

As a country boy from Missouri, I didn’t get out too much. If wasn’t cutting grass or mending fence, I was baling hay and feeding the cows. But, once a year, this incredible thing happened. My Grandma and Grandpa Ski would round up the cousins, Aunt Val, Aunt Shelly, Aunt Julie, and sometimes, Uncle Dan, and we would head to this mystical place called The Great Smoky Mountains. The journey, that seemed to take forever, brought us to a beautiful place. We would stay in a cabin off of Wears Valley Road. The Gathering Place, as it’s called, was a mansion of a log home that was way up a winding gravel road. It was sky high, and it housed all of us! When we weren’t there, we were in town, or at Dollywood.

Grandma and the aunts would shop at the quilting stores, while Grandpa smoked his pipe as he unleashed us cousins on the go cart track. This was the first time I ever witnessed the mountain range I now call home. This was where I fell in love with the awe-inspiring nature of these mountains, and heard the first sounds of bluegrass music. This is the place where I was bitten by the bug which is how I now make my living. It took me several years after that first trip to get here, but I made it, and this place is my home. These people are my people. These mountains are my holy land. Now they have been tread upon.

Sunday the 27th of November brought word to town that Chimney Tops, a breathtaking spot deep in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, was on fire. Year after year, since 1934, this has been the vacation spot for middle class folks, along with high end business folks in vacation homes visible from the streets of Gatlinburg. People flocked here by the millions to make memories with their families. This place was invincible, right? It was never going anywhere. To the locals, the wildfire was not a threat at all. The parks were dumping water by plane; this was nothing we hadn’t seen before. I live maybe 30 miles from the Chimney Tops area. A fire in the park didn’t phase me one bit. There was no way it would get over this way in the foothills.

Like many others, I was wrong. I was dead wrong. Monday’s news from town said the fire was getting closer to Gatlinburg and the smoke was filling the downtown area. No way! I was just there Saturday evening singing Christmas songs to thousands of tourists. Is this real? Next thing I knew, our Po’ Ramblin’ Boys bass player, Jasper, and his wife Sofia, were being evacuated from their home just above the city. Friends I worked with were being evacuated. Our little mountain town was being infiltrated by an unforgiving wild animal, flames from a raging brush fire.

C.J. LewandowskiI took it all in with a heavy heart – I couldn’t believe what was happening. We were still hoping for the best, but winds in excess of eighty seven miles per hour fueled what once was a 10 acre wildfire to over 500 acres of uncontrollable hell. It happened so fast, public officials could barely get Sevier county citizens to safety. Million dollar homes were ash in minutes. Hotels and businesses were threatened. If not completely burned up, smoke damage had claimed them. The sports complex became a makeshift shelter for The American Red Cross.

What we knew as everyday life was gone. As I prayed for the folks of Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, what I thought would never happened was creeping up on me, and my home. The evening brought heavy smoke to Hopeless Holler. The sun went down, but the sky stayed bright. This wasn’t an ordinary mountain sky, as much as I tried to persuade myself it was. Cobbly Knob, just one mountain over was raging and heading our way. The sky was blood red and glowing like a hot ember. The unforgiving devastation leapt over the mountain around 9:00 p.m., and that’s when it was real for me. I was shrugging it off… until now. I’ve never seen fire move so fast, or flames leaping so high, and I hope I never do again.

Pictures came off the wall, instruments were thrown in the car, precious family heirlooms were put in a trunk of my mother’s, and once it was full, that was it. If that fire got to the house, that was all I’d have left of it. To have to choose what stays and what goes was one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever had to decide. I was grateful for the time to choose, as I know that most fires don’t give you that option. But, the realization that everything you worked for may be gone tomorrow was hard to swallow.

I wasn’t in the heart of it, either. I still had a creek between me and the mountain while Gatlinburg raged. That little stream would do its best to hold back the fire, if need be. The floating embers landing on this log home was the main concern. I hope anyone reading this never has to see this type of destruction ever. I saw hell on top of Webb Mountain, and it scared me more than anything I’d ever encountered. I felt the mountains hurting. I heard their cries. Their pain and agony was heart wrenching.

As we prayed for rain and scrambled to pack, a neighbor came to the door to tell us that the fire was gone. Gone? That raging inferno is gone? What do you mean gone? Gone may have been the wrong word, but it was still an answer to our prayers. The fire had receded back up in the valley, and our side of the mountain was being spared. The Lord heard our prayer. Even though, it got too close for comfort, our place was spared and safe. A miracle for sure. I couldn’t have been more thankful.

Others weren’t so lucky. This is real. As I see some social media posts wishing that Gatlinburg and the mountains would burn for days, I think of Jasper and Sofia not knowing if their home still stands. I think of the friends and coworkers I have that are in that same position. I think of Courtney and Nick Lindbert, who had just enough time to save Baby Colson’s clothes before evacuating and losing their entire home. I think of the businesses lost. The jobs lost. My job lost.

Sevier County has been my workplace, where The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys started. How we’ve been able to feed our families and make a living. So, to these people that are making ill-spirited remarks online, you make me sick. How dare you wish a community of hard working people, these majestic mountains, and our homes to suffer mass destruction? This is our home. These are our memories. What is wrong with you?

This area has been home to our music since its formation. It came from these hills and hollers that are now ash. As a tourist attraction, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevier County have employed hundreds of entertainers. Dollywood, Ole Smoky Moonshine, Hatfield & McCoy Dinner show, Dixie Stampede, local restaurants… the list goes on. The support and job opportunities for bluegrass musician felt endless in Sevier County.

This is not only a national tragedy, but it is also a bluegrass tragedy. The businesses of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are shut down. For how long, we have no idea. Could be weeks. Could be years. With that being said, please pray for our community, our cities, our people, and our bluegrass community. Many of these musicians not only lost their jobs, they lost their homes.

The mountains hold a special place in our hearts. Our music is still in these mountains. Though beaten and battered, torn and bruised, the mountains, its people, and its music will rise from the ashes and become the most visited National Park in the United States once again.

We need the people’s support though. Help us make a place, so full of memories, better than it once was. Help our fellow musicians back on their feet. This isn’t a time to weep. This is a time to reflect and unite. I’m proud to be a part of the bluegrass family because we always help out in these situations. The bonding together and support is incredible in our little family. We can’t ever let that fade.

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About the Author

C J Lewandowski

A native Missouri boy, CJ Lewandowski grew up under the wing of the 1st generation Missouri Bluegrass musicians. Learning from men 50 years his senior, he developed a passion and love for Traditional Bluegrass in its rawest forms. CJ has traveled and play with The Warrior River Boys, Karl Shiflett, James King and now heads up Randm Record Recording Artists, The Po' Ramblin' Boys. CJ proudly endorses Pointer Brand Work wear of Bristol TN and makes his home in Hopeless Holler TN. He is becoming well known for his traditional based "Ozark Mandolin Style" and his preservation of the old music.