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 to 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 was getting 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 my uncle 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 to make 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.
and 2,460 structures burned in the 2016 Chimney Tops 2 wildfire in Tennessee.
For the next six hours, my uncle and I drove around the county searching the places we thought my grandfather might be. From the town of Pigeon Forge, we could see the flames raging in the mountains, miles away. At this point, the house, property and belongings were unimportant. 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; my uncle didn't want the tense exchange he'd had with his father to be their last conversation. Finally, around 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, we found him pulled over on the side of a road next to a cemetery. We have no idea where he'd gone; we were just happy he was safe.
I grabbed a couple hours of sleep and the firefighters reopened Upper Middle Creek Road around 7 a.m. As we feared, my grandparents' house had not been spared.
My uncle and I sifted through the wreckage. My grandmother had only been able to take my grandfather's dialysis medicine on the way out, and there was not much left to salvage. We found some of my grandmother's jewelry and remnants of my grandfather's coin collection. For years, they saved cash in a metal lock box in case of emergency. The box survived, but several thousand dollars inside had turned to ash.
My grandfather was wounded in Vietnam and sadly we could not find his Purple Heart or the medals earned by his youngest brother, who was killed in action in Vietnam. That may have been my grandfather's toughest loss.
The entire area around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge looked like a tornado had hit. The fire had its own path and it burned whatever was in the way, but also left some places untouched. It was hard to make sense of that. My other grandparents, who were away at the time, live up in Gatlinburg. The next morning we were able to make it to their house, which was completely untouched. The entire community next to it was burned to ashes.
My grandparents decided not to rebuild on the old property. It was just too painful. But they did buy another house on the other side of town. The love and support from East Tennessee and surrounding Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina has been amazing and has helped us get through a difficult time. We are extremely fortunate and thankful for that. There is a sense of devastation and there are memories that were lost, but I think our community has come together and will ultimately be stronger.
The proportion of fires caused by humans, according to the National Park Service.
as told to Chris Artis
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