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Tennessee Rotarians fight fire with logistics

On 28 November 2016, high winds blew through the drought-stricken area around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, whipping a few isolated wildfires in Great Smoky Mountains National Park into a massive natural disaster.

“The whole horizon was aglow,” says Roy Helton, a member of the Rotary Club of Pigeon Forge. “My wife and I were taking turns getting up, checking to make sure the fire wasn’t getting close to our home. We have roughly 100,000 people in Sevier County, and I don’t think any of us slept very well that night.”

The first fires were spotted on 23 November, but almost all of the damage occurred nearly a week later when high winds carried the blaze through some 17,000 acres. To support ongoing relief efforts, go to

The Heltons were lucky, but many others weren’t. The fire raced through the towns around Gatlinburg, destroying more than 2,400 structures. It spread over 17,000 acres so quickly that 14 people were trapped and killed, while others had to flee their homes. Around 14,000 people were evacuated from the area and not allowed to return for a week. Many lost everything, including their jobs. Gatlinburg, which sits on the edge of the national park, is a major tourist destination with millions of visitors each year, but in the aftermath of the fires, many stayed away. 

“This wasn’t a regular forest fire,” says Jerry Wear, also a member of the Pigeon Forge club. “It was a firestorm.” Most fires, he notes, leave debris such as charred stoves and cars. But the Gatlinburg fire “was so intense, they melted.”

The following day, Helton, Wear, and other members of the five local Rotary clubs began emailing one another. A makeshift distribution center had been set up in Pigeon Forge, but it was not well-organized.

“I called it beautiful chaos,” says Helton. “But it was chaos.”

A few days after the fire, the Rotarians met with city officials. “I opened the meeting,” says Fred Heitman, then governor of District 6780, “and I said, ‘I’m sorry that all this happened. We’re Rotary. What can we do?’”

Helton had been working at the center. “They asked me a bunch of questions, and I kept saying, ‘You know, I really think Rotary would do a great job of managing this.’ And after an hour’s worth of discussion, everyone in the room said, ‘Yes, they would.’”

Helton and Wear took over running the center, with Helton organizing the inside and Wear managing logistics. Every morning, Wear would email a list of needs to Heitman. Heitman would send the list on to 200 local Rotarians and to other district governors; each email eventually reached tens of thousands of people. The response was overwhelming: Whatever the center needed showed up the next day, in boxes from Amazon, in shipping containers, in people’s cars. Volunteers traveled to the center from across the country. 

“For the first six weeks, we averaged about 35 Rotarians a day,” says Helton. “One day we had four past district governors, plus the current district governor, working in the center.” All told, 24,000 people volunteered, many of them Rotarians, some of whom had lost their own homes and jobs.

The first day, a man limped in on burned feet, wearing bath slippers and the only clothes he could grab as he fled his house. He was one of up to 3,400 people a day who came for help in the first weeks. Because some victims were in shock and didn’t know what they needed, everyone who came in was paired with a volunteer. The center set up a pharmacy, worked with the Lions Club to procure new glasses for people who had lost theirs, and eventually collected some $4.1 million in mostly donated inventory.

Roy Helton is still active in relief efforts over a year and a half later;; with so many donations coming in, organization was essential to making the distribution center run smoothly.

Another thing that fire survivors needed, Wear says, was counseling. “We had children who’d been waking up at night crying because they were afraid the house was on fire and they were going to die. So we gave a $35,000 grant to our mental health organization.” 

Helton and Wear organized the center’s inventory into categories: groceries, women’s clothes, men’s clothes, kids’ clothes. Shoes were sorted by size. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency were impressed. “They marveled at our setup,” Heitman says. “They said, ‘What logistics company did you get to do this for you? Someone with a logistics background obviously did this.’ And Jerry said, ‘No, it was me.’ And they said, ‘What’s your background?’ And he said, ‘I’m a schoolteacher.’”

Says Helton, “People from both FEMA and TEMA told us it was the best-run disaster relief center they had ever seen.” 

After 2½ months, it was time to close the center. Helton and Wear spent two weeks redistributing the remaining goods and began working on long-term recovery with a newly organized nonprofit called the Mountain Tough Recovery Team. 

“Rotarians have the right attitude,” says Wear. “They are willing to put their hands and back into it. That gave people a much better feeling about the situation because there were people here who cared and really worked hard to make life better for people who’d lost everything.”

–Frank Bures

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