"You Could Hear Crackling And Popping... Like Kindling In A Fireplace."
The 2016 Great Smoky Mountain wildfires scorched more than 26.5 square miles in Tennessee and claimed 14 lives. One local describes his family's narrow escape
On the evening of Monday, November 28, 2016, wildfires burning on Chimney Tops Mountain in East Tennessee, fueled by unusually high winds and drought conditions, spread rapidly into the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The fires killed 14 and burned more than 17,000 acres. Dakota Cogdill recounts his family’s experience escaping the wildfire and the aftermath destruction.
On the Monday after Thanksgiving break, I returned to Sevierville Middle School in Sevierville, Tennessee, where I teach special education and coach basketball. The fires had been burning for five or six days on Chimney Tops Mountain, about 30 miles away. We didn’t sense danger, but I was concerned by the smoky haze settling around the school from fires so far away. It was thick enough that we kept all of our students indoors that day.
My parents called me at home in a panic around 6:30 that night. The winds had picked up and embers from the mountain were blowing into the valleys and starting new fires. The winds also brought down power lines. The fire was spreading so quickly, my parents feared for the safety of my 91-year-old great grandmother, who had no power. As I made the 10-minute drive up Upper Middle Creek Road where she lives, I could see the flames in the woods and the smell of smoke was growing. By the last mile, the fire flanked my car on both sides of the road and the flames were getting bigger, as high 10 to 15 feet in the air.
"I was hit by a hot blast…. It felt like a summer afternoon, but it was nearly December."
The heat and winds were so intense, I was hit by a hot blast when I got out of my truck at my great grandmother's. It felt like a summer afternoon, but it was nearly December. The wildfire was 100 yards from her house, but the entire area was illuminated by an eerie glow. I could clearly see everything around me even though it was after sunset. We’d been in a drought, so you could hear crackling and popping all around, like kindling in a fireplace. It felt like hell had opened up and was swallowing everything around me.
Even though the fires were visible from her house, amazingly, my great-grandmother had no idea what was going on. When she answered the door, I handed her my flashlight and told her to grab some clothes because we were leaving immediately. She asked me, "Why?"
My parents arrived just as I wasgetting her out of the house. They took her to safety, to my aunt's house. My uncle who lives nearby arrived in his truck and told me he'd evacuated my aunt, nieces and paternal grandmother, but his father (my grandfather) refused. He told my uncle he would not be leaving the house. He raised my father and myuncle in that house. He defeated cancer living in that house. He's a Vietnam vet. He's my hero. But he is so stubborn and prideful. He was determined tomake a stand in the home he'd cherished for 43 years. My uncle wouldn’t hear it. He told my grandfather he’d get him out of that house, one way or another, and he told us it nearly got physical. Not out of anger, but from the love my uncle has for his father. Finally, my grandfather relented, but he just drove off. Nobody knew where he went. He had no cell phone and he needed to take medication for his dialysis.
On the drive down the road, the fires on either side were building. We drove past my grandparent’s empty house around 7:15 p.m. The lot next door was engulfed in flames and the fire was closing in on their property. With the wind blowing the way it was and the parched conditions, we had a pretty good idea the house was not going to make it. But we had to go. The whole area was being evacuated.
"All I wanted was to see my grandfather safe again. The search was excruciating and at times it was tough not to go to a dark place."