Sevier County, Tennessee, is a little bit of heaven nestled up against the magnificent Smoky Mountains. Dolly Parton calls her Tennessee mountain home a place where “life is as peaceful as a baby’s sigh.”

But hell came to heaven Monday night. A fire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, believed set by humans, roared through Gatlinburg, the tourist center at the park’s entrance. Whipped by hurricane-force winds that knocked down trees and power lines, fueled by woodlands parched by months of drought, the fires multiplied. Flames hopped across the landscape, incinerating homes and businesses without warning.

People fled for their lives, and some didn’t make it. By Monday the death toll had climbed to 14.

The accounts of those caught in the conflagration are harrowing. “It was like not being next to a campfire. It was like being involved in a meteor shower,” Debbie Brooks told a Knoxville TV reporter from the hospital where she was being treated for burns. Sevier County is a place where narrow dirt roads through thick forests often end at a mountainside. It was easy to get trapped, and impossible for first responders to get to everyone in danger.

By the time heavy rains stopped the fires’ progress, more than 10,000 acres in the nation’s most visited national park had been blackened. At least 1,000 homes and businesses had been destroyed.

I know Sevier County. I lived there, decades ago, working my first job as a reporter for its local newspaper. I’ve watched it grow into a tourism powerhouse, drawing visitors from across the country and around the world. Like millions of others who have passed through, my heart broke at the pictures of the fires’ devastation.

There’s money in Sevier County, for those who own the hotels and businesses or who could afford to retire there. But there are also a lot of people struggling to survive on seasonal minimum-wage jobs, unemployment insurance and food stamps. Hundreds of those people have now lost everything. Many didn’t have fire insurance they could use to rebuild.

Sevier County shares the natural beauty, cultural wealth and persistent poverty that you’ll find up and down the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. But Sevier County has multiple blessings. God didn’t put any coal in this part of the Appalachians, for one, so there’s no financial incentive for the destruction of its mountains and streams. The region’s treasure is in its beauty, so the incentive is in protecting it for the enjoyment of all.

The second blessing came from Franklin D. Roosevelt and the other visionaries who created Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have tons of tourist attractions, but none of them would have been built if the American taxpayers hadn’t invested in preserving the landscape and heritage of the Smokies.

The third blessing is Dolly Parton.

Born and raised in the hills outside Pigeon Forge, Dolly graduated from Sevier County High School and boarded a bus to Nashville the next day. There she gave voice to the dreams and heartaches of her mountain people. She became one of the most important artists in country music, loved for her personality as well as for her songs, and one of its most successful entrepreneurs.

Dolly never forgot her Sevier County home. I remember interviewing her in Gatlinburg, where she had come to announce two initiatives. The first was a foundation she had created; its initial project was a commitment to provide free children’s books to every family in the county. The second was Dollywood, her Pigeon Forge theme park.

The Imagination Library has since grown into one of the world’s largest literacy programs, giving away a million books a month to children around the globe, while Dollywood has become the Smokies’ second largest tourist draw.

Dollywood escaped the wildfires, though some of its residential properties didn’t. With firefighters still tending to remaining hot spots, Dolly announced that her foundation, along with a newly-created “My People Fund,” would provide $1,000 a month to every family that lost a home to the fires until they can get back on their feet.

The seasons will turn and the Smoky Mountains will heal. By April, wildflowers will spread a glorious new carpet beneath the charred trees. Rebuilding the homes and lives of those who lost everything will take longer. Friday, officials lifted the evacuation order that had displaced 14,000 people, allowing them to return to what’s left of their homes. Dollywood reopened Friday afternoon.

Hard times and abiding faith are at the heart of the culture of the mountains, and so is renewal. The way Dolly Parton tells it, no matter how humble your roots, no matter how confining your cocoon, there’s a beautiful butterfly within. Out of the ashes, the people of Sevier County will surely fly again.

— Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest. He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co, and follow him @HolmesAndCo.