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In Depth - March 2017

Dolly Parton and The Dollywood Company Move Quickly to Aid Fire Victims

Late last year, a devastating wildfire swept through an area of the Great Smoky Mountains around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, killing 14 people and injuring 180. The blaze destroyed or damaged 2,400 structures, and threatened attractions like Dollywood and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

The fires caused more than $500 million in damage and left 1,300-plus families homeless. In response to the calamity, entertainer Dolly Parton, who lives in the area and owns Dollywood in a partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment, immediately organized a major fundraising effort, including a telethon broadcast across the United States, to help victims.

Parton was traveling when she first heard the news: “I was out on the road working ... people were saying, ‘The mountains are burning!’ and I said, ‘Oh that can’t be, not to that degree,’ [but] sure enough, and it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. On TV it looked like the world was on fire, and I was absolutely going to pieces.”

Through her Dollywood Foundation, which Parton originally established to administer a reading and learning program for children, she quickly set up the My People Fund to raise money for victims of the fire. She comments on the personal impact of the fire: “I do have lots of family there—the biggest part of my family still lives in the Great Smoky Mountains. Lucky for me, my blood relatives were fine. But one of the men who works as a mechanic at [Dollywood] lost his wife and two daughters.”

Dollywood and its accompanying DreamMore Resort were threatened by the fire and evacuated. Both survived undamaged, though a few Dollywood Vacations cabins were destroyed.

The telethon, called “Smoky Mountains Rise: A Benefit for the My People Fund,” aired just days after the fire was extinguished. Numerous musicians, entertainers, and celebrities, including Parton herself, donated their time to either perform during the telethon or provide video messages of support.

Within a day of the telethon, more than $9 million had been raised, including major contributions from several celebrities. Realizing the victims needed help quickly, Parton’s team moved with astonishing speed, and just 36 hours after the telethon, checks began to be distributed in Pigeon Forge. Eligible families were granted $1,000 per month from the fund for six months, and almost 900 families received a payment from the initial distribution.

For Parton, the relief effort strikes close to home: “It’s personal for me to help the people from the wildfires because that’s my home, these are my people, these are neighbors—these are people I grew up with, their businesses, their homes. They may not be blood kin, but they are still my family—they’re still my people.”

Other Gatlinburg Attractions Serve Community

Dollywood wasn’t the only Gatlinburg attraction to be impacted by the wildfires. Staff at the Ripley’s Aquarium had to be evacuated for around 12 hours when the fire came within 150 feet of the building; the facility was spared and suffered no damage, and none of its 10,000 animals were harmed, though several Ripley’s employees’ homes were damaged or destroyed. In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, Ripley’s employees went out searching for lost or displaced pets, rescuing dozens and treating any that needed medical attention. In addition, Ripley’s provided hot meals to first responders and set up a grassroots effort to help all those affected by the fires, starting with its own employees. 

Wilderness at the Smokies was safely out of the danger zone of the fire. It served as a collection and distribution location for donated clothes, food, baby supplies, and water.

Ski resort Ober Gatlinburg was not damaged, but the surrounding neighborhoods suffered from the blaze. Many homes close to the resort were burned to the ground and power was cut off when the fire damaged the cables leading to the local electric substation. Fortunately, power was restored to the neighborhood as quickly as possible, allowing residents with homes still standing to return and Ober Gatlinburg to start up the snow machines in time to start the season.