Driving into Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, on Sunday, Larry Arrowood and his wife, Nancy, noticed a lot of smoke in the area as they headed toward their cabin.
They didn’t realize until talking to some locals that a fire had started in a secluded area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in nearby Gatlinburg and burned about 500 acres.
“The ashes were falling from the sky. I noticed they were on our car,” said Larry, pastor of The Tabernacle in Seymour.
“That’s when it dawned on me, ‘There’s a forest fire going on somewhere,’” he said. “It was up in the national park in the areas (first responders) couldn’t get to. They were fighting it primarily by dumping water from helicopters.”
Winds reaching 70 mph caused the fire to spread.
“When the wind picked up (Monday) evening, the term ‘wildfire’ had meaning,” Larry said.
Emergency officials ordered evacuations in downtown Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and in other areas of Sevier County near the Great Smoky Mountains. About 14,000 residents and visitors were evacuated from Gatlinburg alone, officials told The Associated Press.
At least three deaths have been reported, and several people were hospitalized with burns, emergency officials said.
Hundreds of homes and other buildings, including a 16-story hotel, were damaged or destroyed by flames.
Rain showers ended in the Gatlinburg area at about 8 a.m. Tuesday, National Weather Service meteorologist Sam Roberts told The Associated Press. He said no more meaningful rainfall was expected until about midnight Tuesday and would last through today.
Officials say nearly 1,200 people are sheltering at the Gatlinburg Community Center and the Rocky Top Sports Park. Several other shelters have opened to house those forced from their homes.
The Arrowoods left their cabin Monday night and stayed at Hilton Garden Inn in Pigeon Forge, which let evacuees stay at the hotel for $29.
Larry said they decided to leave their cabin after he stepped out on the front porch and saw fire coming over the ridge of a mountain about a half-mile away.
Once the couple drove back into Pigeon Forge, the fire had reached the last stoplight before the parkway that leads to Gatlinburg.
As they checked out of the hotel Tuesday morning, someone told them the head housekeeper had lost her home. They later learned a family member of the people that manage their cabin had lost their home, too.
“Everybody you talk to, it seems like they know someone that has lost a residence,” Larry said.
The Arrowoods were able to take a back road to access their cabin Tuesday. Fortunately, it was still standing.
But on their way there, they saw homes in the Wears Valley area — some valued in the millions — that weren’t as fortunate.
“Just a short way from us, there are people that have lost everything,” he said.
They also saw fire departments from surrounding communities coming into the area to help battle the wildfires.
It was still windy with a lot of smoke Tuesday morning, Larry said. The sun was out, but he couldn’t see it for all of the smoke.
“I’m looking out, and all I see is smoke and a tree here or there. What we used to see, what was a mountain is just smoke,” he said.
“It was definitely an adrenaline rush (Monday) night when you realize the potential for disaster, and then of course, you wake up (Tuesday) morning to realize it was a disaster,” he said. “But then to pull up to your place and to realize you escaped, that was, of course, a grateful feeling, especially when you had driven by homes that were completely destroyed.”
Brownstown Central High School graduate Presley Dmitriev also was affected by the wildfires.
Some of her family members live in a mountainous area between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and had to leave their home.
“I had about three cars full of family that were trying to leave,” she said. “My grandmother actually got stuck on a back road and couldn’t get down to the main road.”
Her grandmother wound up finding her way to the parkway, and the family stayed the night at a Hampton Inn and were waiting to hear when they could go back and check on their home.
“To be completely honest with you, it’s really heartwrenching,” Dmitriev said of the wildfires. “I’ve been crying and upset all day because it’s affecting our community. I can’t imagine if my family were to lose their home and what could happen.”
Dmitriev lives in South Knoxville, which is about 30 minutes from Tanger Outlets in Sevierville, where she works in one of the stores.
On Monday night, she said the entire store smelled like smoke, and they didn’t have customers for the final two hours.
The overnight stock team collected eight cases of water to be given to anyone who needs it, Dmitriev said.
“We have tons of surrounding counties donating all kinds of water and clothes and really anything to help people in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg,” she said.
Dmitriev’s relatives, former Jackson County residents Poynor and Tammy Giles, live in Sevierville. The family, which includes sons Trevor and Tannor, owns and operates Poynor’s Pommes Frites, a German-themed restaurant in Pigeon Forge.
Tammy said they were evacuated around 7 p.m. Monday and still had not received word if their home was still standing as of Tuesday afternoon.
“Our road is closed, but we’re hoping for the best,” she said via Facebook.
The restaurant was not damaged by the fires, she said.
Tammy described the scene as horrifying.
“Fires were everywhere. It was so scary,” she said. “We saw flames and fire on the spur trying to get out. It was bad. Craziness everywhere. Police and ambulance sirens, people frantic, tree branches and trees down on the roads from the high winds.”
Originally from Sevierville, the Gileses spent 21 years living in the Seymour and Brownstown area.
Emilie Giles, Tammy’s daughter-in-law, has lived in Pigeon Forge for three years and is a registered nurse at a hospital there. She worked all night and said the situation was chaos.
“It was absolute madness, for families, victims, staff,” she said. “I have coworkers that lost their homes and are very devastated, all while they still worked at the hospital due to the influx of patients.”
Emilie is originally from Seymour and said most of her family still lives here.
Many of her coworkers’ husbands volunteered to help evacuate and fight the fires.
“We were all checking in constantly to verify our families were OK,” she said. “At one point, Trevor was stuck in traffic with fire 100 yards away and the kids in the backseat. I felt helpless, and seeing the videos online made me worry even more.”
She did not have to evacuate, however, and said the rain that started to fall overnight was an answer to their prayers.
“We thank the Lord for the rain and for the protection,” she said. “And for all of the heroes covered in soot who are out there helping with their own lives at risk.
To help those affected by the Tennessee wildfires, people can make a $10 donation to the American Red Cross by texting “REDCROSS” to 90999.
Donations also may be made directly to the Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville Emergency Response Fund on the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee website, cfmt.org.