Fatal Wildfire One 'for the History Books' in Tennessee

by | November 30, 2016

By Hayes Hickman and Jamie Satterfield

Three people were confirmed dead Tuesday after a fire that destroyed more than 150 homes and businesses as flames whipped by high-speed winds raged overnight through town and displaced more than 14,000 residents in an inferno witnesses called unlike any in living memory.

It's the latest destruction by wildfires that officials estimate have consumed more than 15,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains. Smoke alarms still echoed through the empty streets Tuesday night, nearly 24 hours after the town was evacuated.

"This is the largest fire in the state of Tennessee in 100 years," said Gov. Bill Haslam, who visited the city Tuesday afternoon.

Officials offered no details on the deaths other than that they occurred in three separate incidents.

"We do not have further information on them at this time," Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said at an afternoon news conference. "We do not have identifications. We are working to identify those folks now."

Officials imposed a curfew through 6 a.m. for Gatlinburg residents as emergency workers braced for forecasts that called for winds of up 60 mph. An evacuation curfew for Pigeon Forge was lifted.

Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner vowed the city will recover.

"Gatlinburg is a very strong, resilient community," he said. "We will rebuild. We will remain the vibrant tourist community that we are. We are going to be OK."

More than 200 firefighters from across the state were on their way to help douse the wildfires, and the Tennessee Army National Guard planned to dump water onto the flames from a helicopter, with at least three Blackhawk helicopters standing by.

About 100 to 125 Guardsmen were on the ground in Sevier County as of Tuesday, Capt. Chris Poulopoulos said.

"We've got guys still volunteering to come," he said. "Visibility was too low to fly this morning, but we should be flying soon."

Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said about 14 buildings remained ablaze in the city early Tuesday, most of them smoldering shells in various stages of collapse. Firefighters and Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers headed from door to door to make sure no victims had been overlooked.

"This is a fire for the history books," Miller said. "The likes of this has never been seen here. But the worst is definitely over with."

Fire crews had taken about 14 patients for treatment of fire-related injuries as of Tuesday afternoon, Miller said. Three of those patients were taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center's burn unit in Nashville, and another remained under observation with severe burns at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville.

More than 2,000 people had been taken to emergency shelters.

The blaze apparently began when embers from a wildfire on nearby Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park wafted into the Twin Creek and Mynatt Park areas of town Monday night as already heavy winds doubled in speed, the fire chief said. The resulting flames swept through Gatlinburg in less than a quarter-hour, fanned by winds at speeds that approached 90 mph.

"That's nowhere to be when you're trying to fight a fire," Miller said. "That is hurricane force. Within a span of 15 minutes, we were dispatched to more than 20 structure fires."

Cassius Cash, superintendent of the national park, said the Chimney Tops fire was originally reported Sunday as covering about 50 acres. By Monday, the fire had grown to engulf 500 acres.

"In my 25 years of federal (park) service, I've participated in many fires, but none of that could have prepared me for this," Cash said, calling Monday night's wind speeds "unprecedented."

Gatlinburg fire crews had attempted to prepare for the conditions by following various predictive models, but "to be honest, all that got thrown out the window at that point," the fire chief said.

Residents in the path of the fire began fleeing around 9 p.m.

"We were just told by the Gatlinburg Fire Department that they had told everybody in Gatlinburg to get out," said Judy Tucker, director of Sevier County's E-911 center. "No one's getting through to anyone. Phones are ringing and not being answered anywhere. It's chaos."

As Shari Deason watched the wildfire flames sweep toward Gatlinburg, the evacuation call came.

She, her boyfriend Daniel Hensley and her 14-month-old son, William, left everything behind in their motel room for an emergency shelter at the Rocky Top Sports World.

"We were watching it, but we didn't really know how bad it was until somebody said we had to leave," Deason said. "I didn't cry last night, and I didn't cry this morning, but the more I see of all this, I don't know what I'm going to do."

More than 14,000 people had been forced to leave Gatlinburg alone, and about 500 from Pigeon Forge, officials estimated.

Deason and Hensley, who arrived in East Tennessee a month ago from Mississippi and were staying at the Bedrock Motel, said they left their motel room without time even to grab diapers for William.

"I don't know if we've got a room to go back to," Deason said. "I don't know if we've got anything to go back to."

The Sevier County Emergency Management Agency indicated the Westgate Resorts, made up of more than 100 buildings, had been destroyed, and Black Bear Falls was believed to have lost every cabin.

Hillbilly Golf, major hotels, a good portion of Regan Drive and countless other businesses and homes were destroyed in the blaze that had firefighters working throughout the night.

Escorting a group of journalists through the scene, Gatlinburg Assistant Police Chief Gary Waldroup said during the height of the fires Monday night visibility had been less than 50 yards.

Sites such as the Mountain Lodge Restaurant and the Gatlinburg Church of Christ were burned to their foundations, while nearby buildings stood largely untouched.

Smoke still hung thick along the Parkway, where the town's major tourist attractions were left largely intact.

"The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now," said Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding. "It's the apocalypse on both sides (of downtown)."

Most of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts survived the fire. The longtime crafts campus in downtown Gatlinburg lost three buildings _ Hughes Hall and Wild Wing dormitories and a maintenance building, Director of Development Fran Day said Tuesday. The core of the internationally known crafts school survived the fire.

Arrowmont's iconic, historic Red Barn was threatened but did not burn, Day said. That building was built around the time that the campus began in 1912 as the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School.

No one occupied either dormitory because the school had just finished its season of residential workshops.

"It's kind of stunning that we are in a situation where so many buildings were destroyed and yet Arrowmont is emerging. Not unscathed certainly _ those were two major buildings on campus, and we will have to rebuild. But the core of the campus and the historic buildings are there," Day said.

Fire forced Day to run from her home Monday. Her husband Robert Whittier had left the house to go bowling. She was sitting with her elderly beagle Oscar looking out a window.

"I didn't see a fire. ... And two seconds later a huge gust of wind and the whole mountain around the house was engulfed."

She threw Oscar in her car, grabbed her purse and drove to a motel out of harm's way. Tuesday, she learned her home, only about a quarter of a mile from Westgate Condos that burned, survived.

Arrowmont General Manager Bill May posted an update on his Facebook page to worried supporters.

"All buildings except Hughes Hall and Wild Wing survived with what appears to be little damage," May wrote just before 7:30 a.m. "It is raining and winds have died down, which offers hope, but the resources are stretched too thin with this much fire everywhere."

An estimated 40 to 50 fire units from volunteer agencies across East and Middle Tennessee were helping fight the fires, with a command center set up at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School.

Structures on fire in Gatlinburg included the Park Vista Hotel, a 16-story hotel on Regan Drive and the Driftwood Apartment complex near the Park Vista that had "been completely inundated," according to Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

"(The sky) was brown," said Katie Brittian, manager at the Dress Barn near the LeConte Center. "The whole store smelled like smoke. Ash has been falling from the sky since 3."

The ski resort Ober Gatlinburg wasn't touched by fire, although areas around it burned.

Ober Gatlinburg Director for Sales and Marketing Kate Barido said Tuesday that Pete Juker, who owns the puzzle shop at Ober Gatlinburg, was unable to evacuate from the mountain down Ski Mountain Road. He and some other people who couldn't get off the mountain spent the night inside a building at the resort.

Barido, her husband Justin Bardio, their 15-month-old son Theodore and their dog fled their Gatlinburg home. Bardio, who is pregnant, grabbed one outfit while Justin grabbed some baby clothes, and they each drove a vehicle. Justin Bardio drove his truck as close as he could Tuesday and then hiked to the couple's house to find it untouched.

Sara Gentry, director of sales at Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort, said several hundred people had to flee the hotel. She and her four children evacuated their home and headed to Dandridge to her sister's house. The number of evacuees likely would have been higher had it been the weekend, she noted.

Gentry said she's been talking to co-workers and friends who have lost their homes to the fire.

"This one girl was driving down Ski Mountain (Road) and watching her home burn," she said. "My kids' friends have lost their homes. It's just awful."

TEMA activated its state emergency operations center in Nashville, with personnel on hand from the state fire marshal's office, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Department of Health and others, Flener said. The agency also worked with the fire mutual aid network to pull in firefighters and equipment from other counties, including McMinn County to the southeast.

As news spread nationwide of the fires, condolences and offers of support began pouring into East Tennessee. Haslam said President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence called to extend their sympathies.

"My thoughts and prayers are with the great people of Tennessee during these terrible wildfires," Trump tweeted Tuesday. "Stay safe!"

Pence, who is heading Trump's transition team, mentioned the wildfire in comments to reporters at Trump Tower in New York City.

"Also our hearts and our prayers go out to the people of Tennessee who are struggling with an extraordinary wildfire," Pence said.

Former Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat who represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1984 to 1993, offered his condolences as well.

"My heart is with my neighbors in East Tennessee and those in the surrounding states who are battling destructive wildfires," Gore tweeted Tuesday.

(Staff writer Amy McRary contributed to this story.)

(c)2016 Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)