There's a rebirth going on in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Almost two and a half months after ferocious mountain winds devoured portions of the vacation destination, there are signs everywhere of a resurrection of the forest, residences and businesses.
Local Brian Abston owns a cabin in Gatlinburg.
"There was a time when we truly thought it would be engulfed," said Abston, who was in Mt. Juliet on pins and needles at the time. "A friend was there and escaped and his news of the scene wasn't good."
Abston's place was spared. It was like a giant blacksmith blew into the air and the tiny embers hitchhiked the ferocious mountain winds and were selective where they bailed and burned. Abston was one of the lucky ones.
It will be three months Feb. 28 to mark the date when fires, allegedly sparked by two teens, ate up over 17,000 acres with 14 people dead and over a thousand structures turned ashes. The Chimney Tops fire morphed into a maelstrom of epic proportion.
Abston has visited Gatlinburg several times since the fire. His latest visit was Jan. 27 when he toured the area and gratefully noticed signs of renewal.
"Basically, I've been pleasantly surprised at how the area is being reconstructed," Abston said. "Especially the cabin areas. Before, when I went through, there were burned out shells, now the structures are completely bulldozed and cleaned out of debris. There is straw down and people are ready to rebuild, or sell."
Chalet Village is pluggin on, with daily activity to get up and running again.
Where before the sides banking the forest were charred, today green grass grows on the hillsides, said Abston.
"They sprayed seed a while back, not only does it look good, but it's helping with erosion," he said.
Other areas are strewn with straw, and seeds are ready to sprout and take hold.
Abston said there's a huge misconception that Gatlinburg is alienated and all trees are burned down.
"It's really quite the opposite, the views are just a pretty as always," he said.
Mount Le Conte has a "couple areas" scorched, but it grows back a little every week and it's less and less noticeable, according to Abston.
"Nature is taking over and growing it back," he said.
Abston noted a lot of people think the trees were "totally burned up," but, he observes about less than 5 percent of the trees were destroyed.
"From what I observe, the fire burned a lot of the underbrush, about a foot or two at the base of the trees, not the tops of them," he said. "I believe all of them will continue to live. Most of the damage was to structures on the side roads in Gatlinburg."
The talk of regulars in Gatlinburg is the hurricane force winds those few days were a curse and a blessing. Those 85 MPH winds blew sparks and started fires and spread fast, however the high winds pushed the fire down the hills quickly and mostly affected the underbrush.
"A lot of the trees didn't burn up," Abston noted. "It went really quick."
If you decide to vacation and stroll the main strip in Gatlinburg, you would never know of the historic fire.
"Along the back streets you can still see damage, but a lot has been cleared out," Abston said.
People should not hesitate to take their annual pilgrimage to this destination, said Abston.
"Everything is fully operational and running," he said. "All the great restaurants are unaffected, and all the shopping boutiques."
There's still hundreds of hiking trails unaffected. In Pigeon Forge there's Dollywood untouched and the huge waterpark Wilderness at the Smokies is a great place to visit there as well.
Many people wonder and worry about the wildlife. Deer destination Cades Cove was unaffected. And, Abston knows "my bears" are OK because they've raided his trash.
"I think there were plenty of places to take cover and I think most were hibernating," he noted.
There's also the regulars - squirrels, raccoons and birds and such.
Lately, tourism commercials have popped up with Gatlinburg officials reassuring this beloved mountain resort town is ready to welcome and is revived. Soon, spring will show its youthful colors and further reinforce rebirth.