Back to business: City of Gatlinburg reopens to visitors following deadly wildfires

The remains of Creek Place Efficiencies in front of an unharmed BB&T bank in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. Tornadoes that dropped out of the night sky killed several people in two states and injured at least a dozen more early Wednesday, adding to a seemingly biblical onslaught of drought, flood and fire plaguing the South. (Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean via AP)

Businesses in downtown Gatlinburg are taking the first steps to returning to normal. Friday morning, the City of Gatlinburg reopens to visitors, 11 days after the deadly fire ravaged the area.

While several Gatlinburg areas resembled a war zone, the main business drag in this popular Tennessee tourist site was spared by the fast-moving flames.

A week ago on Monday, hurricane-force winds whipped up fires that killed 14 people and damaged or destroyed more than 1,750 buildings in the Great Smoky Mountains tourist region, carving a selective path that turned some buildings to rubble and at times left their neighbors unharmed.

Some businesses that were largely untouched are eager for a quick reopening in a crucial holiday season. Others that weren't as lucky have begun planning to rebuild.

The public may enter through Pigeon Forge on the Spur, but city officials warn traffic delays could occur throughout the weekend.

On Thursday evening, officials said in a joint news release the assessment of structural damage to homes and businesses was complete: 2,460 total buildings damaged or destroyed — 1,137 in Gatlinburg, 18 in Pigeon Forge and 1,305 in other parts of Sevier County.

Newfound Gap Road, Little River Road, the Gatlinburg Bypass and the portion of U.S. Highway 441 known as the Spur are slated to reopen at 7 a.m., and park visitor centers at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee and Cades Cove will resume normal operating hours, according to a park news release. Cherokee Orchard Road will remain closed, as will hiking trails within the fire footprint.

The park asks that visitors refrain from entering burned areas on foot and reminds visitors that firefighters still are establishing containment lines to ensure the fire is extinguished.

Several upcoming park events have been postponed or canceled. The Festival of Christmas Past, scheduled for Saturday, has been canceled. The Hike 100 Centennial Challenge celebration, scheduled for Friday at the Gatlinburg Convention Center, has been postponed. The Holiday Homecoming at the Oconaluftee Mountain Farm will take place as planned on Dec. 17.

As of Thursday, the Chimney Tops fire, which had since grown to span more than 17,000 acres, stood at 91% contained. The Cobbly Nob fire spanned 756 acres, down roughly 60 acres from Wednesday, and stood at 92% contained.

To date, fighting the Chimney Tops fire has cost $5,916,962 and fighting the Cobbly Nob fire, $265,363, officials said.

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