A wildfire tore through Gatlinburg, Tennessee, burning thousands of buildings and killing 14 people—but leaving Ace Hardware of Gatlinburg behind.
The fire started south of Gatlinburg on Nov. 23 and burned through the popular vacation city on Monday, Nov. 28. That Monday, the employees at Ace Hardware of Gatlinburg closed the store in accordance with the city’s initial recommended evacuation order.
“We really were unaware of the magnitude of the fire until after we closed the store on Monday,” store manager Libby Murphy says. “We just got complacent in our little area and never dreamed anything like this would reach us. As I got to my home, which is just outside the city limits, I could see the fire raging.”
Two teens are charged with starting the fire Nov. 23 at Chimney Tops, a section of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Murphy had initially waited to close the store, setting up fans so the business could remain open, despite the smoke.
Early in the afternoon on Nov. 28, the National Weather Service reported that wind gusts were approaching 90 mph, rapidly pushing the fire closer to Gatlinburg. By 9 p.m., city officials called for a mandatory evacuation of the city and surrounding areas.
Watching and Waiting
Murphy waited out the fire in her home.
“We decided to wait because my home is actually on the top of a mountain. We watched and waited. The rains came, and it appeared that most of the fires were out, but of course they started raging again a little bit later,” Murphy says.
“I was up all night for two nights watching. The sky was actually aglow. It was orange. There was no other color to it. It was pretty much surrounding us.”
Initially, Murphy heard that the fire had destroyed the hardware store. That was hard news, particularly since the store has been family-owned and operated for almost 60 years and employs workers who have been with the company for decades.
“We sat for probably six or eight hours, I don’t even remember. The surreal effect that the people who worked with us didn’t have a job,” Murphy says. “We knew we could rebuild, but how long would that take?”
In the middle of the night, Murphy got a Facebook message from a member of her staff who had been in touch with a police officer. The store was still standing.
One of the firefighters who helped prevent the fire from reaching the store was a former store employee.
“He was instrumental in saving our store,” Murphy says.
Firefighters positioned their trucks to protect Ace Hardware of Gatlinburg and nearby buildings. They ran out of water as soon as the fire was out.
Once Murphy knew the store wasn’t destroyed, she jumped into action.
“I started ordering trash cans, shovels, rakes, dust masks, gloves, water, pry bars, anything I could think of that people would need to clean up the area,” she says. “Then we started seeing pictures Tuesday morning that homes were reduced to slabs. There weren’t even boards that they would need to pull apart with a pry bar.”
A member of the Ace Hardware of Gatlinburg staff lost his home, barely escaping with his wife and pets after firefighters had to kick in their front door to get them out safely.
“He came in the store, and we all just lined up for hugs to make sure he was OK,” Murphy says.
Murphy felt strongly that the store was spared for a reason, and she took that strength to city officials to request permission to open the store.
She called the Gatlinburg mayor that Thursday.
“He said, ‘You’re right, you need to be open. You’re a service to the community. We need you,’” Murphy says.
Murphy didn’t get cleared to open the store until midday Friday, four days after evacuating. She connected with a friend who was at the town command center with the governor.
“Maybe 10 minutes after I texted him, I got a call from the mayor that we were going to be allowed to open Saturday,” she says.
Murphy coordinated a product delivery that Friday. The town was under curfew, so the store could only stay open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the first few days. Eventually the curfew was expanded, and with it, the store hours.
“I let the team here know, more than anything, that we’ve just got to listen. Let people know we’re here to help however we can,” Murphy says. “It’s just been a place for people to come hang out and see familiar faces, to tell their stories and get beyond it. That’s been our biggest responsibility, I think.”
Reopening the store was a service to the community, but Murphy felt they could do more to help. She got the idea to drill holes in the bottom of 5-gallon buckets and place wire mesh in the bottom, so people can sift ashes to find valuables.
The store has given away about a dozen of the sifters for free and ordered 300 more buckets.
“We’re such a small, tightknit community that our customers are our friends,” Murphy says.
Many friends lost homes, or both homes and businesses. Thirty-four out of the store’s 400 customers with charge accounts lost one or both, she says.
Support has come from many unexpected places, but Murphy’s co-op and other Ace retailers in the area have stepped in with supplies, such as buckets and lumber. The store doesn’t have a lumberyard, but Murphy hopes to bring in enough lumber to help people make small repairs, like door and window frame replacement.
Murphy steadfastly believes Gatlinburg will recover and rebuild.
“We are strong, stubborn mountain people,” she says. “The few people I’ve offered to help I almost had to force them to take my assistance because they say, ‘Help the next person.’ The generosity is almost as unbelievable as the fire was. It’s not ‘What are you going to do for me?’ it’s ‘What can I do for you?’”