Eggs and meat sizzled on the grill of a country kitchen on Wednesday as, half a mile from Wears Valley Road, hands sifted through classic candy barrels and searched for their initials on leather key fobs near the register of a rustic general store.
It looks like business as usual. But contractors in the valley are beginning to wonder how the recent devastating wildfire on Hatcher Mountain, which burned for nearly a week and damaged more than 200 structures, will affect future sales.
Although no fatalities have been reported, it’s still hard to think about money when neighbors are hurting – and when the exact financial impacts are still unknown just days after the last flames were extinguished.
But basic economics will tell you that fewer cabins means smaller clientele, which is particularly problematic in an area like Wears Valley, where many houses cater to tourists willing to spend their vacation savings year after year in quiet mountains.
We spoke to homeowners and business owners about the effects of the fire and how they plan to move on – emotionally and physically.
Forest fires in Tennessee:The fire being almost under control, the owners take stock of the damage
Patrick Vaughn – Von Bryan Estate
Eleven bedrooms, a six-person bar, two hot tubs and a cinema room.
Now all that remains at the Von Bryan Estate at the top of Hatcher Mountain Road are piles or rubble and melted fire trucks left behind by first responders who Patrick Vaughn said narrowly escaped with their lives.
Vaughn has co-owned the 10,000 square foot estate, which has been family owned since 1988. It started as a bed and breakfast when the trend was at its height, and since then the family has made it a point to add regularly new rooms and amenities at the property.
Before burning, the house could accommodate 42 people.
“Walking through what’s left of it up there, I can see places where I built the deck or remodeled that bedroom,” he told Knox News. “It’s very difficult.”
Vaughn estimates the family has invested between $200,000 and $300,000 for upgrades in the past three years alone. They were about to have their best year yet, and not just by the number of nights rented.
The improvements have allowed the family to significantly increase overnight rates, which is helpful as the owners rely on the estate as their primary source of income.
“If we’re able to rebuild, I don’t think it’ll be finished for three or four years,” Vaughn said.
The family has been informed that they could receive a year’s worth of refunds. Vaughn said they’re stretching it as much as they can, but he doubts that will last through the rebuild.
“I’ve never dealt with this kind of stuff before,” he said. “I know the cost of building materials has doubled or tripled over the past few years. This (insurance) maximum may not be enough to replace. It’s still a bit up in the air.”
Michael Miller of RE/MAX Cove Mountain Realty & Cabin Rentals said he knows of a one-bedroom cabin built 30 years ago for $62,000. The owner figured out fire insurance worth $75,000, that would be a lot.
Fortunately, this cabin did not burn during the fire. The cost of rebuilding would be closer to $250,000 as construction costs increase, Miller said.
Michael Miller – RE/MAX Cove Mountain Realty & Cabin Rentals
Michael Miller told Knox News he manages 60 rental cabins in the Wears Valley area. Forty-five of them were evacuated and two were destroyed.
While the destroyed cabins will impact his business, the fire has even bigger implications for the owners.
“That’s what they pay for their homes, their utilities,” he said. “And now they don’t have that anymore.”
Some future clients have called Miller to say they are no longer vacationing and may stop visiting the area altogether. He thinks it’s a “reflex” reaction and people will be ready to come back once the blaze clears their news feeds.
Miller was ‘slapped’ for spring break rentals when the fire broke out, meaning he had nowhere to send people to evacuate.
“Yes, we were able to get them to safety and gave them a full refund for their stay, but it might take longer for them to get that money back in their account,” he said.
With fewer cabins now in the area, Miller predicts a 10-15% increase in rental costs due to changing supply and demand.
Some owners, frustrated by the financial situation, may not rebuild.
“As far as timing goes, it was probably one of the worst times because we’re very busy,” he said.
Al Wilson – Wears Valley General Store
Al Wilson readily admits that nothing in his store is a necessity. It sells old-fashioned candy, antique furniture, and Smokies-themed memorabilia, among other trinkets.
Now in his 17th season, Wilson said he was already anticipating a slower year due to rising gas prices.
“(Tourists) are going to cut somebody off the budget,” he said. “And I don’t mean to take offense because I command everything here but…it’s an impulse.”
Eighty percent of customers who stop by the Wears Valley General Store in an average year are tourists, he said. Many of these guests are staying in nearby cabins, some of which have been at least partially destroyed.
If people can’t stay in Wears Valley after the fires, Wilson thinks it’s likely they’ll shop closer to their cabins and hotels.
Its preliminary projections include a 10-15% drop in activity after the fires.
“We’re kind of in a waiting period right now,” he said. “I’m just waiting to see how it will affect him.”
Mary Lou Shinlever – Grandmothers Kitchen
Even though Mary Lou Shinlever has been in business for 27 years, it can be hard to tell tourists from locals, except for those who come to Grandmothers Kitchen daily.
In the wake of the Wears Valley wildfire, she relies on faith.
“I don’t care about anything because God is my life,” she told Knox News. “If the impact of this (fire) slows my business, God is going to send more than I lost up there. That’s my goal, and always has been.”
Shinlever said she prayed for all the “homes” when she realized a fire had broken out. His house was safe, but his nearby warehouse – not a dwelling – was set on fire.
Shinlever said a similar prayer when she woke up in 2016 and saw light from nearby wildfires in the distance.
“God stepped in and the tide turned,” she said. “At 3 o’clock I lay down and fell asleep, and I got up and came to work at 6 o’clock. He intervened then, and he intervened this time.”
Grandmothers Kitchen was closed Thursday through Sunday after the fires broke out.
Joe Socha – Wears Valley Social
The Wears Valley Social Food Truck Park provided food for firefighters and others in need of a meal during the fire.
Owner Joe Socha, who also owns the Chicken Coop food truck with his wife, has worked hand-in-hand with the Salvation Army since the fires began.
“As a member of this community and dependent on this community for what we do, I am ready to do whatever I can to help them,” he said.
Yet only around 40% of its customers are locals during peak season. The rest of its business, like other businesses and restaurants in the area, comes from tourists.
“The support we’re getting from locals here in and around Wears Valley is really good,” he said. “It’s kind of like anything else – you have to build a rapport and a relationship with them because I think life is always about relationships.”
Business slowed for a few days because of the fires, he said, and people on spring break might reconsider their plans.
“We’ve only had food trucks sitting here for three days now,” he told Knox News on Wednesday. “The effects of the fire – I didn’t expect a lot (of business). … But I don’t know. People are coming here left and right. So we’ll see what happens with business .
“I think it’s just a little too early to speculate.”