Gatlinburg reflects two years after devastating fires

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WVLT) - New signs in Gatlinburg point to a safer city, two years after unprecedented wildfires killed 14 people. The anniversary is a time to honor those who lost their lives, but also to chart progress.

Rick Starkey has a magic shop called Make it Magic. He does chainsaw wood carving, stained glass and magic tricks in Gatlinburg.

Two years ago, Starkey set up shop in Gatlinburg to begin carving.

"I started noticing smoke coming in really heavy, and then about another hour I had to call my wife to come pick me up because I couldn't breathe down here," Starkey said.

Two years later, Starkey continues to carve, with optimism for the city of Gatlinburg. Like Starkey, many others in the surrounding communities are also looking ahead.

"It really makes you really love our community when you think about what was going on here two years ago. You think about how well our community served us. As we're out there serving our community, they were here serving us and taking care of us, and I think it draws us closer together," Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson said.

Chief Watson was working the day of the wildfires two years ago.

"I think we were greatly prepared, but it's one of those experiences that we go forth at trying to make not just our community safer, but the nation and our regional area, and we learn from our experiences and we've really got something to share," Chief Watson said.

Gatlinburg is not just stronger, it's safer, too.

"The city has installed a new emergency warning system with towers placed throughout the city and on the perimeter areas including in the National Park so that our visitors can either hear voice activated emergency notifications or sirens to know to look for emergency warning messages," Marci Claude, Gatlinburg city official, said.

Signs also help people navigate the winding mountain roads in case of another emergency.

"Our community is just moving forward. We had an event. It was very hard. We lost 14 people. We will never, ever forget that, and probably never going to get over that, but as a community, we are moving forward and we are looking to the future with a lot of optimism," Claude said.

"Being prepared now, if any good could come from it, that's it, and I think Gatlinburg did a great job of keeping things going," Starkey said.