KINGSPORT, Tenn. (Nov. 28, 2017) -- Gatlinburg is my hometown, and I loved growing up there. I graduated from Pi Beta Phi Elementary and Gatlinburg-Pittman High School and worked in the tourist industry, the police department, and for the National Park Service. My home church is First United Methodist Church in Gatlinburg.
On the night of Nov. 28, 2016, wildfires swept through the Great Smoky Mountains, killing 14, injuring nearly 200, and damaging nearly 2,500 homes and businesses.
My neighborhood, Beech Branch Road, lost many of its homes. The casualties included my grandfather's home which he lived in until he died years ago, the home of my parents next door, and the homes of our neighbors. My stepsister lost her house as did my childhood friend, Carol Egli, who owned Mountain Laurel Chalets. She lost half of her rental cabins, which were her livelihood.
I am still a member of a search-and-rescue team in the national park, and one of our team members, Andrew Harrington, was recently honored with a heroism award for sawing burning trees off the Spur, the road connecting Gatlinburg to Pigeon Forge, to allow the evacuation out of town. He saved many lives that night.
I was called back to Gatlinburg after the fire to conduct Critical Incident Stress Counseling for teachers at the schools and for first responders. All I did was listen to their stories and offer encouragement and prayers. It was good to be home.
A bright spot in all of this for me involves my present ministry as director of Camp Bays Mountain in Kingsport, Tenn. A week prior to the fire. I spoke at First United Methodist Church in Gatlinburg about the new camp. I asked the congregation to consider giving to help build the camp.
Two weeks after the disaster, we received a check for $1,000 from a family who lost their home in the fire. They wanted to make sure that there was a new camp built which will serve children in the next generation.
I am proud to be from a mountain community in the shadow of the Smokies who would sing, “Unto the hills I lift mine eyes, from which shall come my aid? My help is from the Lord alone, who heaven and earth has made.”
The Rev. Jeff Wadley is executive director of Camp Bays Mountain in Kingsport, Tenn.
Holston's 2016 wildfire coverage