When wildfires ravaged Gatlinburg, Tennessee, local Kiwanians heeded the call for help.
Story by Julie Saetre • Photos by Luis Garcia
Structures were still smoldering this past November, after the most devastating wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee’s history, when David Coulter, president of the nearby Sevierville Kiwanis Club, began receiving calls and emails. Coulter’s club serves Gatlinburg residents, hundreds of whom were now homeless, and Kiwanians from across the country wanted to help. What, members asked, could they do?
Mark Ross, chief professional officer of the Boys & Girls Club of the Smoky Mountains, saw the fire’s impact firsthand. Two of his employees lost everything, as did 21 other families that had children (42 in all) enrolled in Boys & Girls Club programming. They needed help to purchase food, clothes, toiletries—life’s basic necessities. Coulter contacted Ross, and the Kiwanis Wildfire Relief Fund was born.
It’s not easy to reach the summit of Chimney Tops Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a few miles south of Gatlinburg. Novice hikers, lured by the promise of spectacular views, move with relative ease for the first mile. Over the second half of the journey, however, the trail elevates rapidly—more than 960 feet over a one-mile stretch containing vertical cliffs and narrow rock ledges—and many would-be mountaineers give up before reaching the top.
On Wednesday, November 23, 2016, two teens completed the journey. And somewhere near the top, authorities allege, the boys purposely tossed lit matches onto land parched by a months-long drought. By 5:20 p.m., when firefighters first spotted the blaze, flames had consumed about three acres.
The fire spread slowly, at first. And because Chimney Tops Trail climbs so steeply, the national park’s fire managers decided, for firefighters’ safety, to monitor the burn and contain it through natural barriers. By Saturday, the fire had increased to eight acres, and analysts predicted low growth as flames neared the containment boundaries. On Sunday afternoon, Chinook Type 1 helicopters began dropping water on the fire.
And then the winds came.
In Gatlinburg, the long Thanksgiving weekend had ended, and on Monday, November 28, residents resumed their workday schedules. People knew about the fire at Chimney Tops—the smoke could be seen easily. But it hadn’t been a pressing concern.
“It really wasn’t communicated, the extent of the fire,” says Melissa Dove, area director for the Boys & Girls Club of the Smoky Mountains and a member of the Sevierville Kiwanis Club.
They did, however, notice the increasing winds. An approaching storm front from the south pushed gusts of up to 32 mph toward Gatlinburg, fueling the Chimney Tops flames and tossing aloft burning ash. Several miles away, just south of Gatlinburg, that ash sparked another fire. And still the winds continued to grow.
On Monday afternoon, Dove, her father, and her daughters, Hannah, 17, and Grace, then 9, were driving home along what locals call The Spur, a road between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, in the family’s SUV. Wind gusts shook the vehicle, and smoke obscured their vision. Then they saw the approaching flames.
“I called our director of operations,” Dove recalls, “and said, ‘This fire is closer than we realized.’”
Terry Parton, a repair specialist for commercial washers and dryers, was returning from a day trip to Nashville. Driving into Gatlinburg on The Spur, hampered by heavy smoke, he dodged fallen limbs and debris blown into the road from the fierce wind gusts, now reaching up to 49 mph. About 6:45 p.m., he pulled into the drive of the 3,500-square-foot, two-story mountainside home he shared full time with his widowed mother and part-time with his son Layne, then 9. He went into his backyard, where he could see the glow of Gatlinburg’s lights far below.
“I went back inside, and I grabbed a snack, poured my tea, fed the dog. I decided to go into the backyard again. It was starting to get a little more smoky, and a little bit more smoky, that whole progression. By 7 p.m., there were quarter-size embers floating above my head. And that’s when I decided it was time to go.”
What Dove and Parton experienced next seemed more like a harrowing scene from a movie than real life. At the time, Dove wasn’t thinking about the well-being of her property, a two-story, three-bedroom mountain-top home. She was focused on getting her mother safely out of the house and down the mountain. But as flames pushed over the slopes and trees tumbled across the main road leading to her neighborhood, police shut down access.
Determined, she called a friend, Mike Graves, who owned a Jeep with a winch. He rushed to meet Dove and led their two-vehicle procession to a back road. As they began to climb, thick smoke filled the air. Flames licked at the road on either side. Several times, Graves jumped from the Jeep with a chain saw to cut through fallen trees blocking the road and move them aside. At one point, a tree tumbled onto Dove’s SUV, knocking out the front passenger window. After 30 minutes, Dove’s party had traveled less than a mile.
When they finally reached Dove’s house, they tossed in a few hastily assembled supplies and, with her mother safely aboard, began the equally horrifying drive down. Winds now gusted at nearly 80 mph. More fallen trees, more smoke, more flames surrounded them. In the midst of the horror, Hannah read to Grace, wanting to distract her from the flames and the fear.
Meanwhile, Parton and his mother were making their own rapid escape. His mother left in her own truck. Parton grabbed an overnight bag along with some clothes and toys for his son. Making his way down the mountain, he encountered blazing hot spots on either side. He wasn’t unfamiliar with the scene; for six years, he served as a firefighter in Georgia.
“(Fire) is so unpredictable,” he says, “especially in those high winds. … I knew if it was over here, in a hundred yards it could be opposite you in just the blink of an eye. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Near the bottom of the mountain, Parton passed a small wedding chapel.
“It was fully engulfed. It didn’t have a roof left. And the propane tank beside it was shooting flames about 20 feet in the air. You could feel the heat through the windows in the truck.”
Dove, Parton and their loved ones made it safely off the mountain. Ross of the Boys & Girls Club arranged for Dove’s family to stay at a hotel. Parton and his mother headed for the Pigeon Forge motel where his girlfriend works as general manager.
Late Monday night, rain began to fall in Gatlinburg, and winds died down. Rain returned on Wednesday, a drenching that soaked the area. But the damage was done.
What would be known as the Chimney Tops 2 fire had destroyed 17,140 acres while devouring more than 2,400 structures, killing 14 people and injuring more than 170.
“The Sevierville area is no stranger to wildfires,” says Michele Steinberg, wildfire division manager for the (US) National Fire Protection Association, “(but) the building destruction and loss of life is unprecedented in Tennessee for a wildfire.”
Dove’s description: “It was literally like a bomb went off in the city.”
On Tuesday, Graves drove Dove back up the mountain, again taking a back road to avoid official blockades. At one point, the road became impassable, so they hiked the rest of the way. Dove held out hope that her neighborhood, her home, had been spared. Until they arrived on her street.
“The entire road was destroyed,” she says. “There was nothing left of my house but the foundation and chimney.”
Authorities didn’t permit Parton to return to his home for four days, although his step-brother, who worked a half mile from the property, had warned him it hadn’t survived. That didn’t lessen the impact of seeing it for himself.
“You start trying to figure out what your plan is and the direction you’ve got to go,” he says. “But you’re standing in the middle of your house, and there’s nothing. Absolutely nothing but ashes, and the brick, and the steel. That’s it.”
By the time spring arrived, both Gatlinburg and its residents were focused firmly on recovery. While the tourism-centric city spread the word that it was still standing and open for much-needed business, Dove and Parton worked to rebuild their lives.
Dove and her daughters first lived in a house loaned at no charge by a Kiwanian, then moved into a rented home. Parton and his son remained at the motel, with his mother living nearby in a recreational vehicle. Both families were among the 23 households helped by the Wildfire Relief Fund.
For Parton, it was back to basics.
“The biggest thing was clothes for Layne. And he’s at that ornery age where he’s sprouting every direction except for the direction you want him to go. … (The fund) helped literally put clothes back on our backs.”
Thanks to community donations of clothing and furniture, Dove was able to tuck her relief funds into a savings account while she calculated—both figuratively and literally—her next move.
“I’ve decided to not move back to Gatlinburg or rebuild on the lot, because of the painful memories we are still dealing with daily,” she says. “I don’t want to make a rushed decision with the money so generously given to us.”
Beyond that, she focuses on what the fire didn’t take.
“We are safe. My parents got out. We are very blessed. Home is where the heart is.”
Parton does plan to rebuild, using stonework salvaged from the wreckage of his former home.
“Granted, it’s not much of the house, being just rocks,” he says. “But it was part of the house, and it survived. So we survive.”
Editor’s note: On June 30, 2017, 4th Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn announced that he was dropping charges of aggravated arson against the two teens caught on videotape shortly after dropping lighted matches on the Chimney Tops Trail. Days before, during a media interview, he had learned that the state did not have jurisdiction inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park according to a 1997 agreement between the state and the federal government.
The U.S. government owns national park lands, and therefore only federal officials have the authority to prosecute crimes committed on those properties. However, in the 1997 document between the National Park Service and then Tennessee governor Don Sundquist, local and state authorities also received the legal right to prosecute such cases, listing specific properties involved. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was not included on that list.
In 2002, someone anonymously added the park to the agreement and filed it with the Secretary of State, according to a report by the Knoxville (Tennessee) News Sentinel. But whoever made the change did not get approval or notify the National Park Service or the governor’s office, invalidating the amendment.
Dunn told Gatlinburg television station WATE that because of the swiftly evolving nature of the case, he was unable to notify the 14 families who lost loved ones in the fires about the dropped charges. They, along with Dove, Parton and the hundreds of others left homeless, learned about the development from a news conference.
This story originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Kiwanis magazine.