Officials work to make life-saving improvements in year after Gatlinburg fire

The rebuilding process is coming along slowly, but homes are starting to pop up in an area that was devastated by the Gatlinburg wildfire almost a year ago.  (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

The rebuilding process is coming along slowly, but homes are starting to pop up in an area that was devastated by the Gatlinburg wildfire almost a year ago.

Ken Kraujalis and his wife lost their home of more than 20 years. They evacuated with only the clothes on their backs.

"You have absolutely nothing. You can't prove who you are. You don't have insurance. Papers are gone," Ken Kraujalis said.

To get through this past year, they have had to rely on their strength.

"Every day, we were crying about something. And then one day you wake up and say who cares? Me sitting here crying is not doing us no good," he said.

Despite losing it all, they still feel lucky because they are alive. The Gatlinburg fire claimed 14 lives while burning more than 13,000 acres.

Lessons learned

It was a tragedy that's now providing important lessons for the future. Since the fire, Sevier County Emergency Management officials said they have been reflecting on and reviewing their response to the Chimney Tops 2 Fire.

Gatlinburg and Sevier County authorities have expanded their emergency alert system in a multiphase process. Gatlinburg, has installed five sirens throughout the city. Eventually, nine more will be installed in the city and county. Some sirens will alert a tone and a voice message. They have upgraded their Code Red system, which would notify local officials in the event of emergency situations or critical community alerts.

The sirens will also be tied into an Integrated Public Alert and Warning System ( IPAWS). Sevier County Emergency Management has applied for access to deliver warning notifications. This will allow management to get emergency information to residents and tourists quickly.

Emergency management is also working on an AM broadcasting system and a navigation signs to alert and direct tourists in the event of an evacuation.

"If you are staying in a community, we want to help you to be able to navigate it. And there might be more than one exit, so we want you to know if one direction is blocked," said Joe Ayers, intern director of Sevier County Emergency Management.

Authorities for the National Forest Service said they, too, have looked at ways to improve since the fire. The first step is working on communication lines.

"We have already taken several steps forward. We have started upgrading our radio systems. That's going to provide us better communication not only in the park from ranger to ranger but dedicating one line for emergency traffic," said Dana Soehn, spokesperson for Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Chimney Tops 2 Fire was the largest fire in park history. No one could have predicted how quickly the fire spread, but officials said it's important to learn from it.

"Taking lessons learned from last year's fire season when we had over 20 active fires between August and November, in those drought conditions, those learning lessons are going to help us be better prepared," Soehn said.

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