Did buried power lines help save downtown Gatlinburg from fires?

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) – The search for answers following the Gatlinburg wildfires will likely go on for years, but as many look at the patterns of the fires and what happened in the hardest hit areas, many wonder how many of the fires were started by power poles and sparking power lines.

Late last week, Sevier County Electric confirmed they had replaced 414 power poles that were damaged or destroyed in the fires, but along the Riverwalk area downtown, there are no above ground utilities. Some people say that may be one reason downtown was spared.

On December 7, two days before the city reopened to the public, Mayor Mike Werner himself wondered during an interview with WATE 6 On Your Side if a decision to bury power lines in downtown more than two decades ago may have played a role in keeping nearly all the businesses in that area intact.

“You had telephone poles being knocked down and transformers sparking fires all over the whole area. It wasn’t just the fire in the park. There was a lot more to it,” said Mayor Werner.

A simple walk through Gatlinburg in the late 1980s led to an idea that helped mold the Gatlinburg we know today.

“The natural character that people come to the area and the city to see wasn’t being manifested in the city itself,” said Curtis Stewart.

Stewart, a landscape architecture student, saw a solution and wrote a thesis that resulted in a huge transformation.

“Finally, City Council asked me to present at one of their meetings,” said Stewart.

Stewart’s idea was passed and the firm he worked for started phase one. By 1995, the Riverwalk Streetscape Project was well underway. As the years moved on and more phases were complete, popular locations downtown went from cluttered to more pedestrian friendly.

“There was something that happened in phase three on the north end. When we took the power lines down there, people started saying, ‘Hey look, there’s Mt. LeConte. I never knew you could see it from here,’” said Stewart.

While enhancing views and increasing walkability downtown were big reasons for the project that buried utilities, now many are concentrating on the safety aspect and above Gatlinburg where hundreds of poles were replaced and hundreds of homes destroyed, people say they want utilities buried there as well.

“A lot of the fires weren’t just the wildfires. It was transformers that blew down from power poles. That’s what started the one in Cobbly Nob, the one on 321, and we don’t know how many it started up here. But certainly the power lines were on fire going across the road up here,” said Carol Muszik.

A former home on Greystone Heights Road is one of two mansions she lost in the fires. Right now she says she’s hesitant to rebuild if better warning systems aren’t in place and power lines aren’t buried.

“There was so many trees and power lines in the road. We were just lucky we were able to get over them,” said Musick.

Today you will find power lines criss-crossing the deserted neighborhood, along with newly replaced power poles as tall as the trees. Neighbor and longtime business owner Jim England lives just a few houses away and shared his own harrowing escape that night, as well as some advice from his neighbor.

“Everything was on fire. It was crazy. Don’t slow down. Those power lines are so hot they will melt your tires,” said England.

He also remembers a much different scene when he was finally able to make it downtown.

“I was down here. We still had electricity downtown. If we still had electricity overhead, it would have burned us down,” he said.

Of course, England and Musick both say firefighters’ efforts and the fact that there are fewer trees near downtown likely helped saved the strip as well, but they both would like to see underground utilities no just where they work, but now where they live, no matter the cost.

The master plan downtown is not complete yet and it’s already cost more than $27 million. The designer of the project said he thought about the benefit of buried utilities when it came to snow and ice storms in the area, but he said he never thought about the safety aspect during a fire. He did add that burying utilities comes with great technical challenges. You can only imagine that would be enhanced up the steep mountains.

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