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As the owners of a vacation rental and property management company, each year we take road trips staying in vacation rentals and visiting other professional managers to learn best practices that we can use to improve our operations and services. This year, while en route to the VRM Intel conference for managers in Destin, Florida, our trip included a visit to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It was an experience that we will never forget.
After arriving and checking in to our cabin in the Weirs Valley near Pigeon Forge on November 27, we planned on “secret shopping” a few vacation rental companies, meeting realtors, and getting some all important Christmas shopping done. On the evening news we learned there were wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. During the newscast the national park rangers did not express any danger from the fires spreading outside the park. The following day, a smoke smell was present throughout the area, and we learned that Gatlinburg had been placed under a voluntary evacuation due to air quality concerns caused by dense smoke settling into the valley from the national park. As we drove to Sevierville that afternoon for shopping, we could see dark plumes of smoke over the mountain ridges, but we were not particularly concerned since there were no reports of fires spreading out of the national park. As we shopped, there was an almost dismissive calm as the smoke conditions worsened throughout the area. The smoke seemed to be perceived as a temporary inconvenience that would soon pass. Weather forecasts for that evening were rain and wind. With rain in the forecast and the wind direction away from our cabin’s location in the Weirs Valley, there was no apparent reason for concern. As we returned to the cabin that afternoon, the smoke smell seemed to have diminished. There was no forewarning of the firestorms and imminent danger that would occur later that evening.
We had decided to go out to the Opry Stage Show for an evening of entertainment after having dinner in Pigeon Forge. When we arrived at the show, the weather was calm, and there seemed no reason to be concerned—little did we know that firestorms that would soon rage through the area. All seemed fine—until the end of the show as we were exiting the auditorium. An announcement was made that roads in the Pigeon Forge area were being closed. We assumed the road closures were from the continued spread of dense smoke. There was a light rain falling as we started the drive back to the cabin. We reached the Parkway turnoff to the Wears Valley and were relieved that the road was not closed. As we drove toward the cabin, we were still unaware that high winds had spread fires out of the national park throughout Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and the Wears Valley. While the firestorms were still unknown to us, the road closures should have been our first sense that there may be danger waiting as we headed back to the cabin.
As we drove into the Wears Valley, I noted a red glow in the sky over several of the mountain ridges. At first, I thought the glow was caused by light bouncing off clouds. But as we turned off the highway onto the road leading to the cabin, we were struck with the unimaginable reality of the landscape on fire. Instantly our focus became to attempt getting to the cabin to retrieve our luggage and, most importantly, our laptop computers. We prayed for the safety of the cabin and ourselves, hoping we could get some of our personal belongings, if the cabin had not yet caught on fire.
As we approached the last stretch of road before the drive into the cabin, police and emergency vehicles had the road blocked. Large trees and power lines that had fallen across the road because of the high winds had just been removed. Maybe it was a temporary state of unbelief, but for some inexplicable reason, we were allowed us pass and head toward the cabin. As we drove up the road through an open area that had not been affected by fire, we were hopeful that the cabin, which was in a small valley a short distance ahead, might be reached safely. That thought quickly changed as we rounded the last corner in the road before the drive to the cabin. The valley was ablaze with homes and cabins on each side of the road burning. The road was still clear and we drove on, passing the burning devastation. The cabin was just a few hundred feet ahead as we turned onto the drive. While I do not endorse foolish decisions, our prayers were answered as we pulled up to the cabin still standing in midst of fires around us. The cabin was dark with no electrical power and I pulled up to the porch and front door to use the vehicle headlights to help see our way.
We used our cell phone lights to locate belongings in the smoke-filled rooms. While locating laptops and luggage, we heard popping and small explosions nearby. Suddenly, we were overcome by the sense of the danger and urgency to get out of the burning surroundings. I called out “Let’s go!” to my wife Kathie as I turned our vehicle around and realized that we had become separated. Thankfully she was safe, having done a quick sweep inside of the cabin trying to find belongings we may have missed. Encircled by fires around the cabin, all we could think about was how our cabin escaped burning as we began our escape.
Upon arriving safely back in Pigeon Forge, we found a motel and began to gather our thoughts on the nights’ events. Our clothing and vehicle were permeated with the smell of smoke. Many homes and businesses were destroyed. It wasn’t until later that evening that we checked our voice messages and learned that the cabin rental company had tried to reach us to check if were safe and instruct us to evacuate. For many people, there was little notice or time to prepare for evacuation. The high winds had rapidly spread the fires and in many cases without warning.
The night was surreal. As we learned more about the fires and loss of homes and businesses in Gatlinburg, we were grateful that we were safe. We met other guests at the motel who had lost all their belongings, but all remarkably retained their composure. As we witnessed the incomprehensive loss of property, we reflected back on the danger that could have turned out much differently for us. Dazed by the events, it was not until the following days, as reports about the loss of life, that the real tragedy of the Gatlinburg fires became known.
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View Our Photos of the Gatlinburg Fires
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