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After the fire: Henrico man rebuilds life after Gatlinburg fire claims home

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- At night, the drive into Gatlinburg, Tennessee seems innocent enough.

The main street connecting Pigeon Forge, home of Dolly Parton's theme park Dollywood and other tourist attractions, to the slightly less commercial-looking town of Gatlinburg in the Great Smoky mountains is still lined with Christmas lights and holiday decorations celebrating a winter many who call that area home would likely soon want to forget.

What we could not see that night became much more apparent when the sun rose the next morning.

Gatlinburg and surrounding towns in Sevier County, Tennessee are most definitely still recovering from a series of wildfires last Thanksgiving that claimed more than a dozen lives and consumed thousands of homes and businesses.

Some residents fortunate enough to escape the fires returned to what was once their homes to find smoke still rising from the ashes. Ashes that contained a lifetime of memories.

Inside Pete Thompson's home

Inside Pete Thompson's home

Such was the case for Pete and Yalonda Thompson.

Pete Thompson made national news, with an appearance on CNN, following the fires.

His story was unique, in a way.

Pete is a lifelong firefighter and EMS worker.

He was on an ambulance the night the fires reached Gatlinburg.

While Pete drove around town attempting to help, rescue, and save neighbors in harm's way, he had to watch as his own home burn to the ground.

Pete attended J.R. Tucker High School in Henrico's West End some 20 years ago.

Mutual friends contacted me, a fellow Tucker Tiger, and asked if we could do a story on Pete and his actions that night.

I had never met Pete and was unaware of his connection to our area.

After a few social media and text messages, the private and humble first responder agreed to share his story.

Arriving in Gatlinburg

After a seven-hour drive from Richmond, reporter Jake Burns, photojournalist Jason Hicks, and I arrived in Gatlinburg -- a town I had never visited before.

In terms of tourist attractions, it reminded me a lot Myrtle Beach -- just with a mountain, not ocean, vibe.

Downtown Gatlinburg

Downtown Gatlinburg

Many of the tourist attractions were open for business, despite the fact, I was told, our visit fell in between tourist seasons.

We encountered tourists, convention goers, and families in the town. The restaurants we visited seemed adequately busy and nearly everyone we met went out of their way to be gracious hosts and ambassadors to Gatlinburg.

But you still got a sense that the area was in recovery mode.

A few blocks Gatlinburg's main tourist strip, entire neighborhoods sat destroyed.

gatlinburg-fire-damage

Marquees outside restaurants and businesses touted the phrase "Gatlinburg Strong" or "Mountain Tough."

A reminder to those who live there, or just in town for a visit, that while the fire dealt Gatlinburg a knockout punch, the town and its people were going to get off the mat and continue to fight.

Downtown Gatlinburg

Downtown Gatlinburg

"Mountain tough and mountain strong has been the phrase here and we're certainly that way. Sevier County will be back as it once was very soon," Sevier County EMS Director Rick Valentine said. "There were a lot of structures that were damaged or destroyed, but there's a world of things to do here. We certainly want everyone to know we're open for business and we're going to have a great summer. We hope they'll come back here and enjoy it with their families as many have for years and years."

Sevier County EMS Director Rick Valentine

Sevier County EMS Director Rick Valentine

After spending a few days in Gatlinburg, it seemed apparent the town would rebuild and repair the areas that attracted so many families to the Great Smoky Mountains over the generations.

It is my hope the men, women, and children directly impacted by the wildfires will be as successful rebuilding their lives following the tragedy.

Good people, like Pete and Yalonda Thompson.

Friday on CBS 6 News at 11, you will hear from Pete and Yalonda Thompson about the night their lives changed forever and what they are doing to help their children deal with the traumatic loss.