[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians in the path of catastrophic wildfires that have destroyed a large swath of the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in the southeastern U.S. are working to help their communities in the aftermath.
“Several of our parishes are working with local fire and police departments to begin to collect items that are of need as we move through the rescue phase of the response to the fires,” Diocese of East Tennessee Bishop George Young said Nov. 29.
Communication is difficult but Episcopal Relief & Development has been in contact with Young and is awaiting the diocese’s assessment of damages and needs.
In devastated Gatlinburg, it appears that Trinity Episcopal Church survived the flames that killed seven people, injured 14, forced the evacuation of 14,000, destroyed 150 buildings and damaged 400 in total. About 4,100 people live in the town at the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“We are not yet able to get to the church until the authorities have cleared the way and allowed folks back into Gatlinburg,” Trinity’s interim rector, the Rev. Bob Beasley, said Nov. 30. “I have heard from two sources that the church is okay though there is much damage nearby. I’ve heard from four parishioners whose homes were destroyed and heard about more possibilities. We will have to give each other a lot of love and support and rely deeply on the peace and power of God.”
In addition, a Nov. 30 post on the parish’s Facebook page said: “Driving by the church last evening around 8 o’clock on the way to a shelter it appeared that the church was untouched by fire and it would be accessible once the roads were released to travel. We hope to have church services there Sunday.” A later post said it was not clear if the church could be reached on Sunday due to road closures predicted to last until Monday.
Beasley, who was in California when the fire began, said that he was stunned by the fire’s devastation in the historic resort town of Gatlinburg and in the rest of Sevier County. “Many of Trinity’s parishioners have expressed the trauma the fires have caused in their lives,” he said.
On Nov. 29, St. Joseph the Carpenter in Sevierville said on its Facebook page: “We have been hearing from many of our church family and friends, making contact with each other to make sure all are safe. A couple of people stayed at the church last night after evacuation, but have now been able to return home … Let’s continue to hold each other and our area in prayer. Also give thanks and prayers to the hardworking first responders and people so diligently working to protect and serve. God bless us everyone!”
Church of the Annunciation in Newport, Tennessee, had not been affected when Young wrote to the diocese Nov. 29, but is close to the area where the fires are still a danger.
“Depending on what has happened, the recovery phase of this disaster will provide many ways for people and parishes to help,” the bishop wrote. “So, our work right now is to wait, pray and stand ready to assist when things get a bit clearer.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the Chimney Tops 2 fire grew overnight by more than 1,000 acres and early on Dec. 1 encompassed 17,108 acres. However, after exhibiting “extreme fire behavior” Nov. 30, rain fell in the area that day and overnight, but the fire is not contained. Containment does not mean the fire has been extinguished; it means firefighters have cut a line around the fire. The human-caused fire is under investigation.
Officials said Dec. 1 that the fires damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes and businesses throughout Sevier County – nearly half of them in the city of Gatlinburg. At least 53 people were treated at hospitals for injuries, according to news reports.
Meanwhile, another eight wildfires are burning in North Carolina, one in South Carolina, three in Georgia, and one each in Alabama and Virginia, and there a total of 14 large, uncontained fires in the Southern Region, the agency.
The area has faced other natural and human-made disasters in recent days. South and west of Gatlinburg, McMinn County was hit by a tornado overnight Nov. 29-30. The diocese on its Facebook page called for prayers for victims and responders there. Severe storms swept across Tennessee and Alabama that night, killing at least five people.
The area around Chattanooga, Tennessee, was hit by a series of wildfires in mid-November. The city is still trying to make sense of the Nov. 21 school bus crash that killed six young children and injured 20 of the 37 students on board.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.