Since early Monday, fires near Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., have forced over 14,000 residents and visitors to evacuate while scorching roughly 15,000 acres in the resort-heavy area. As of 5 P.M. EST today (Nov. 30), seven fatalities have been reported, while thousands of firefighters and emergency personnel are desperately searching for those stranded by the ash, smoke and flame.
“I don’t know if something like this can ever happen again,” said Clarence Mabe of Amusement Entertainment Group based in Pigeon Forge. “There were 60-70 mile per hour winds out of nowhere. That just doesn’t happen this time of year here. When that wind blew in, the fires started everywhere.”
Optimistic reports have trickled out from the coin-op community in that area with many people feeling blessed that things weren’t worse. The flames reached the edge of the town’s famed Dollywood theme park and also threatened Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, but rain has been helping tamp the blaze down a bit and will hopefully continue through the week.
“We have been blessed. We lost one small game room in a motel that was burnt, 10-12 games, and another small one after that. But compared to everyone else’s losses, I feel lucky,” Mabe said. “It was one of those things, a perfect storm, you know. The drought here has been unreal. The fire started 12 miles away, but then the wind came through and it came right across the mountain. It started raining last night or else it would have been even worse.”
Marion Paul, operator of Gatlinburg’s Fannie Farkle’s FEC, was on an annual trip to Florida when the fires started, but is certain that, for now, her store and employees are safe from the disaster. However, for many, the losses are yet to set in with authorities holding a three mile blockade around Gatlinburg while fires are still fought.
“The cameras in Fannie Farkle’s are still running, so I know things are okay. It will be quite emotional for me to see it though. We left Thanksgiving Day and everything was beautiful,” Paul said. “Now going back, a lot of my friends have lost everything. There are a lot of emotions. It’s very raw, and it’s nothing short of horrific.”
Paul’s home and warehouse have also survived the initial blaze, but with fires burning, Gatlinburg may be danger still. She hopes to be back from her travels as soon as possible, and is already mentally preparing to open Fannie Farkle’s doors, brush off the ash and get back to entertaining the town.
“People from around the country have been emailing me saying they are praying for us and want to come back and have some food and play the games,” Paul said. “If they do let us in and we have electricity, Fannie Farkle’s will open immediately.”