On Wednesday, November 23, 2016, park rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains took precaution and closed off nearby peaks and trails due to a 3-acre fire near the Chimney Tops, unaware of the devastating firestorm that would follow in the coming days.
Aided by 20-mph winds and dry conditions, the small fire strengthened for five days and began sweeping along the forest floor. The blaze jumped from ridgetop to ridgetop, roads, trails, and creeks and outflanked firefighters and moved faster than evacuation notices. The fire was now covering close to 500 acres, closing main roads and outlets. Later that day reports came in of another small fire just south of Gatlinburg, likely started from blowing ash from the Chimney Tops.
By Monday evening the small tourist towns of Sevier County would be forever changed. Although rain had begun to fall, the winds picked up and were clocked at over 80 mph. The hurricane force picked up the forest flames and sent them racing towards Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The fire spread up the hillsides and to the vacation homes, destroying everything in its path. As trees and power lines fell, evacuations were underway.
For Pasadena Villa Smoky Mountain Lodge, the fires came too close to home. Executive Director, Sally Lawes recalls, “Earlier in the day the fires were burning 30 miles from Smoky Mountain Lodge. By that evening the winds whipped up to 60 mph, and the fires were moving very quickly through Gatlinburg towards Pigeon Forge. Given the proximity of our facility, we decided to evacuate.”
The evacuation plan for Smoky Mountain Lodge called for residents to be moved to hotels in Pigeon Forge, but due to the fast approaching flames, that was no longer an option. Luckily, The Stables at Smoky Mountain Lodge were optimal and far enough from the danger. Residents packed their needed belongings and were transported to the supportive residential homes at the farm.
Traumatic situations such as the fires can take a toll on mental health. Many survivors may need help coping with depression and anxiety for months to come. For our residents, this was truly a trying time, but they overcame and evacuated without incident with the help of our clinicians and staff. “Everyone remained calm, and we evacuated. Once we were settled, we got some snacks and had somewhat of a pajama party,” said Sally. The lodge was not damaged, and residents and staff returned the next day. Several employees, however, did have damage to homes and family businesses.
By Tuesday the winds died down, and firefighters started making headway in extinguishing the fires. Eight fires still burned by Wednesday morning but were being contained. The fire reached as far as the edge of Pigeon Forge, 16 miles from where it had begun, burning almost 16,000 acres. This harrowing event cost 14 people their lives, 2,500 homes and businesses burned, and over 14,000 people fled for safety. Events such as these are not to be forgotten but to be remembered as a time to reflect on those we loss and show our gratitude to those who risked their lives to help others.