Remembering Gaitlinburg: A Town On Fire
A look at three of Nashville’s Guardsmen who helped tame the fires in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Written By: Marc Acton
Gatlinburg is always bustling, even in the offseason. So, the Tennessee town was still in full swing with visitors in November 2016, when this vacation destination, built in and of the woods, was set ablaze. The Great Smoky Mountains, which provides timber for its resorts and backdrops for tourist selfies, was burning—not by the acre, but by the square mile, from Gatlinburg all the way south through Chattanooga, into Alabama and Georgia.
Thousands of tourists and locals were evacuated, as high winds (reported over 80 miles per hour) and unusually dry conditions combined to spread the wildfires past the containment efforts of forestry personnel. More than 2,000 buildings, where countless Tennesseans have made memories throughout the years, were destroyed. Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters would later place the official damage estimate at $500 million. And, when the last of the smoke had cleared, it was the deadliest series of fires in the eastern U.S. since 1947, claiming at least 14 lives.
But, if not for the relentless efforts of more than 200 National Guard soldiers and airmen, all of whom call Tennessee home, the damage would have been far worse. With shovels, helicopters, nearly a million gallons of water, some high-tech tools, and the kind of selfless service that we commend in our local heroes, they made a difference in the lives of thousands of Tennesseans.
Meet 3 of Nashville's Guardsmen who helped tame the fires:
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Sam Grinder
Hometown: Gallatin, TN
Unit: C Company, 2/151st Aviation Battalion
Civilian job: Standardization Pilot at Nashville’s Army National Guard aviation facility
Enlisted in the National Guard in 1991, the day after his 17th birthday.
On surveying the devastation of his childhood vacation spot:
“I remember Pigeon Forge was kind of the poor man’s paradise. That’s where you go for the summertime as a kid in Tennessee if you couldn’t afford to go to the beach. For a lot of us, that’s a big part of our life’s history. I have pictures of being on the chair lift when I was about two years old. I have pictures of my kids on the same chairlift. And that was all gone.”
First Lieutenant Tony Clampet
Hometown: Maryville, TN
Unit: Battery commander, A Battery, Regimental Fires Squadron, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment
Civilian job: Manager of Right Way Services, Tennessee Valley Authority
Enlisted in 2000 as a Field Artillery Surveyor. Commissioned as an artillery officer in 2012.
On Guardsmen serving the community that they call home:
“One of the most affected areas was a road named Wiley Oakley. One of my soldier’s great-grandfathers was Wiley Oakley, so it hit home immediately. I remember driving on Wiley Oakley with that soldier and he had a tear in his eye because he grew up right down the street. His great-grandfather lived there. His whole family grew up on that road, and it was essentially destroyed completely. Being able to help in Tennessee, in East Tennessee, is one thing, but being able to help people you know is probably the best part of it.”
Sergeant First Class Eric Rumsey
Hometown: Murfreesboro, TN
Unit: Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1/230th Assault Helicopter Battalion
Civilian job: Standardization instructor for crew chiefs at Nashville Army National Guard aviation facility
Joined the Army National Guard in 1999. Has been in aviation ever since.
On the benefit of using National Guard helicopters to fight fires:
“The fire we were fighting on Signal Mountain had grown so quickly—it kept jumping fire lines, and every time it did we had to start over. It’s really hard for ground guys to fight those fires because of the bluffs and the terrain. They can’t access it. They can’t reach it. What happens is that the fire goes into the nooks and little valleys in the mountains, and then spreads. But we can see it and get to it.”
Read the full story in the November issue
of Nashville Lifestyles Magazine