On November 23, 2016, a series of wildfires spread through the Smoky Mountains devastating Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in Sevier County. The fires were one of the worst natural disasters in Tennessee history—claiming fourteen lives and injuring 134.
When the blaze was first reported along the ridge of Chimney Tops mountain “no suppression activities were initiated.” On November 24, park rangers started containment procedures in a hope to stop the fire’s progression. Four days later the blaze had spread to Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Pittman Center, as a result of sparks and downed power lines.
The worst of the inferno—what the fire department called “the apocalypse”—destroyed the majority of wooded areas surrounding the center of Gatlinburg. In total some 1,413 properties were destroyed.
Watching the devastation on television, Nashville-based photographer Jeremy Cowart decided to do something to help the victims of the fire. Together with a volunteer crew, Cowart documented the aftermath of the Great Smoky Mountains wildfires. Using a camera attached to a drone, he photographed many of the families and individuals whose lives had been devastated by the fire as they lay on a white mattress surrounded by the remnants of their homes.
I went to work that morning, like I always do. By 9am I knew that something was wrong. I was working on Sevier County Ambulance Service. We did business as usual until later that evening. It was about 10 or 11pm that evening when I first got pulled into Gatlinburg for mutual aid with EMS response. On my way to staging I passed by my residence and it was still there. We continued to run several more calls and about 1–2am I was going to meet up with another GFD EMS unit. That’s when I passed my residence, and that’s when I saw that my house was gone.
It was scary because the smoke was so bad and sirens just kept passing going both directions. We finally got to my sister’s but the sky was bright orange.
An American neighbor came knocking on my door telling me you need to get out and get your kids out. He repeated that over and over until he finally got me to understand it wasn’t safe for me and my family. We left Gatlinburg at 5pm. It was so hard to breathe.
As real estate agents here in the Smokies, we have always told buyers to make sure they have adequate fire insurance. Our professional and volunteer fire departments are great, but because of the mountainous terrain, as we all witnessed two weeks ago, there is no way for fire crews to get to some of these locations and actively fight fires.
We left our home at 8:30 pm, and when we saw the fire coming down the hill we left with the clothes we had on. We got in our car and drove away with the fire burning our neighbors house.
I saw what looked like snow, so I put my hand out and the small flake fell into my hand. I realized it was ash. I would have never thought that within a few hours I would be without my home. My belongings were reduced to ashes. I’m just grateful to have survived.
Our 91-year old Momma on her walker, Mark, me and L’il Kitty made our way down our driveway — through the wind, smoke and sparks blowing all around us — dodging fallen tree branches.
As they came up our driveway they were yelling, “Get out! Get out now” My brother replied, “Ok, Ok, but let me get a jacket.” They yelled back “No! Get out! Get out!” “But I have to grab my medication”, said my dad. “No! You can take care of that later!”.
My family is amazing and comforting to me and I am so fortunate to have them. Better days are ahead for all of us.
Given the extent of the fire, and the incredible destruction all around, Arrowmont was very fortunate to lose only three buildings. My focus began to shift from what was lost to what had survived. Most importantly, all of our staff was safe, and no one lost their homes. What remained far outweighed what had been lost.
We decided to play it safe and pack and leave our house, and help my 85yr old grandfather do the same, but our shared driveway was blocked by a huge downed pine tree that my brother and I had to cut up and remove. It was pretty stressful and scary! Our homes were okay. Escaped with minor wind damage, but the studio was a total loss.
This is my family’s first home as a family… our pictures, special moments… we have worked so hard to begin our lives together, welcoming our new baby girl, and now we have nothing again.
Well, it’s a long story how we got out. We barely did. We were trapped by trees and fire was all around us. Our power was out, and when it got dark we could see fire all over Wiley Oakley.