GATLINBURG, Tenn. — The bustling mountain resort town of Gatlinburg was devastated Monday as wild fires ripped through town, reducing some areas to only ashes and rubble. Believed to have been started by hikers, the fire is being called “the perfect storm” as high winds and dry air created ideal conditions for this tragic event. Officials are now saying the so-called Chimney Tops fire has taken as many as seven lives, burned 17,000 acres, and destroyed more than 700 buildings.“It’s a horror movie,” posted Angie ‘Pinkie’ Harvel. “Our hearts are twisted and in pain at the site of what’s going on around us.” Harvel is a priestess with Dragon Palm Circle, and lives in an area fondly called “Valley of the Dragons” by the resident local Pagan community. This area is 13 miles east of Gatlinburg up Highway 321. While Harvel does not live in one of the areas that fell under mandatory evacuation, the fires reached within 1/4 mile of her home, forcing her and her neighbors to pack up and leave.
At this point, investigators believe that the fire was started days earlier by hikers on the Chimney Tops Trail. Tuatha Dea‘s Danny Mullikin and Rebecca Holman, who live near the city limits of Gatlinburg, noticed the mountain top fire Sunday night during an evening walk. Mullikin told The Wild Hunt that it looked almost like a volcano with the fire ablaze at the very top and lines of orange fire running down.
However, he added, “Nobody was overly concerned at that point. They said everything was contained.” But, by Monday, conditions changed, and changed quickly.
The entire Appalachian region was already in a severe drought with humidity levels rarely experienced in the area. The dry conditions were fueling wildfires throughout eastern Tennessee, western North Carolina, and northern Georgia. Winds carried the smoke as far south as Atlanta, making breathing conditions difficult for days, and even forcing school systems to keep children indoors for recess.
As it was, these dry conditions made firefighting difficult, but it was largely manageable. However, when a late November storm front closed in on the area, winds began to pick up. By Monday afternoon, there were reports of regular gusts and straight-line winds reaching as high as 89 mph. These high winds began to carry embers and ash from Chimney Tops down the mountain.
Local resident Jewels Wyldwomyn, priestess of Dragonshire, said, “The winds were so bad that I had to dodge tree limbs as I drove home.” Her car was eventually hit and damaged by one of the flying limbs. She did make it home before conditions worsened.
Wyldwomyn owns and lives on Dragonshire, a 32-acres ‘Valley of the Dragons’ campground that hosts annual Pagan festivals and retreats. She said that when she got home, she assumed that a bad thunderstorm was coming. Due to her remote location, Wyldwomyn does not have television, satellite, or cell service. Therefore, she had no idea what was in store for her later that evening.
Local artist and owner of Sword and Ivy Kathryn Rutherford lives on the other side of Gatlinburg in Wears Valley. She was doing errands in town Monday as the fires began to spread, and heard details through her husband Greg, who works for the National Park Service. According to Rutherford, the fire first spread to the Chimney Tops picnic grounds, and then further down the mountain. The winds, then, spread ashes out in all directions, creating more fires. She also reported that the high winds knocked over trees and power lines, causing downed electrical wires to spark their own fires.
“Nobody knew it was coming,” Rutherford said. She recalls hearing the mandatory evacuation, and the call to simply “get out.”
Mullikin said the same thing. “It happened so fast. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Tuatha Dea was rehearsing in a basement when the fire started. Unlike Rutherford, who was receiving reports as early as 2 p.m, the band didn’t know what was going on until the power went out around 8 p.m. As Mullikin explained, they rushed outside immediately and what they saw was “apocalyptic.”“We came outside.The skies were red,” Mullikin said. “There was heavy smoke everywhere. Ash was coming down from the sky. Sirens were going off everywhere. It was like a movie.” Mullikin and the band ran back inside, packed up their equipment, and evacuated.
Back at Valley of the Dragons, Harvel and her family had made the decision to evacuate as well, and to assist others in the community. Wyldwomyn is one of their neighbors. Wyldwomyn said, “At 8 pm. DJ [co-owner of neighboring property Cerred Ered] knocked on my door and said ‘get out.'” The fires had reached Cobbly Knob, an area located only 2 miles from the valley. Wyldwomyn grabbed her three puppies, everything that she could pack in her car, and left. By 9 p.m., a caravan of cars and trucks, including Harvel’s family and Wyldwomyn, drove slowly down the single lane road that leads people from the Pagan sanctuary to the main highway.
“I don’t know how we escaped. The fire got within 1/4 mile of our property. Our mountain was on fire,” Wyldwoman said.
When they reached the road, as she reports, there was steady stream of cars leaving Gatlinburg, and only “firetruck after firetruck” heading toward the city. “There was so much smoke,” she added. The caravan of Pagans, then, met at a parking lot to decide how to proceed. From there, they separated to find safety for the night.
The members of Tuatha Dea also separated for the evacuation, each taking different side roads out of the city. But as Mullikin said, “It wasn’t easy.” Embers and ash were being blown in every direction. “There is was no rhyme or reason to it,” he added. You could take one road, as he described, and find yourself facing a pocket fire. “And it isn’t like you can go back,” he added. One Twitter user filmed his own escape out of the burning resort town.
It took Mullikin two hours, he said, to reach Dandridge, where he could find a hotel room. Once there, he met up with Holman and others. They have been there ever since.
Gatlinburg is a small town with a resident population of only about 4,000. However, as a resort city, there were many more people in the area at the time. Officials estimate that as many as 14,000 people had to be evacuated Monday evening. Complicating the matter is the city’s location. Being a mountain town located in a valley, there aren’t many roads leading in and out. Some of them, as noted by Mullikin, were completely blocked by fire.
Rutherford watched from afar as the fires blazed. The mountain situated between her home and the city looked as if it were glowing. She was packed and ready to evacuate at any point. Late Monday night, she remembers hearing officials repeating the words: “Gatlinburg is gone! Gatlinburg is gone!” She imagined the worst.
She added that one of her friends, who does not own a car, had two minutes to evacuate as the flames came down on his home. She reported him telling her, “I stood. I ran.” She also said that she heard reports of “windshield wipers melting” and windows cracking just from the intense heat put off by the flames.
Mullikin described a similar scene, saying “The fires were so hot that the ground itself was on fire.”
As the evacuations continued, the rains came. First a mist and then eventually a downpour. Mullikin said, “I don’t think we would have made it without the rains.” Harvel reported that she and friends stood outside in a parking lot and danced. When Wyldwomyn reached her destination at a friend’s home, she immediately began doing water magic to help. She said, “What saved us was the rains. I thank the gods. I thank the gods.”
Despite the Monday night storm, the fires still burned. Winds picked back up on Tuesday, spreading more ash and more fire. But again, by evening, the rains came.
The properties that make up Valley of the Dragons were spared the flames, but did receive significant wind damage. The area of Wears Valley, where Rutherford lives, was also spared. Mullikin’s home, which lies only one mile outside the city, was undamaged by fire, but is currently without power. All of our interviewees called themselves “lucky.”
Mullikin was first able to get back to see his house Thursday morning. In describing what he witnessed, Mullikin said “It is like tornado; the fire jumped around. There are homes burned to the ground, and then next to them, there will be one that is fine.”
While four Valley of the Dragons residents never evacuated, many of the others, who did leave, are now back home. They have spent the last day cleaning up the damage done by the high winds, and assessing needs. A tree went through Harvel’s roof. She and her family are now temporarily living in one of the cabins at Dragonshire.
The center of Gatlinburg is closed as city officials attempt to assess the scope of the destruction. There is no electricity in area and the mayor is advising all area residents to boil their water before drinking. As Mullikin explained, there are contaminates in the air, which may have gotten into the water system. He said, “remember not everything burning was natural.”
Unfortunately, the danger is still not over; fires continue to burn. In fact, WBIR reports that a second Chimney Tops fire is currently “0% contained.” According to one source, officials are patrolling the area, looking for more fires. Residents are being told that further evacuations may be necessary.
As for the people, the local news is saying that 1,200 of Gatlinburg’s 4,000 residents are currently in shelters. The death toll is now at seven, at least 53 are people are injured, and more are missing. Officials say that they expect the death toll to rise.
Wyldwomyn noted that the long-term devastation may run far deeper. She said that most of the residents, like those living at Valley of the Dragon, have jobs in the area’s lucrative tourist industry. Now, they have no jobs to go to. She is concerned with how long it will take for the local economy to recover.
When talking about the area, Harvel explained, “Gatlinburg itself is a very small town as far as residents go. Right now, because of how many folks drive into work in [Gatlinburg], many of us have spent years working and living together. Pigeon forge and Sevierville are one greater community.”
Despite all that has happened, Wyldwomyn offered a “silver lining,” saying that her own community came together in its time of need. In addition, her extended community, those who attend festivals and enjoy her campgrounds, have also reached out to offer assistance to her and other Valley of the Dragons residents. She said, “We are grateful.”
Mullikin echoed that sentiment, saying, “I’ve seen the community [of Gatlinburg] come together like I’ve never seen before.” He said that this is not about being Pagan or Christian or anything else. “People are coming in from all over to help.”
In addition, he said that friends and fans have been sending Tuatha Dea messages and emails, asking how they can help. He said, “We love everybody. Thank you. Tuatha Dea will be fine. We are one of the lucky ones.” But he did add that his daughter, Tesea Dawson, has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to buy toys for Gatlinburg’s children.
On the campaign page, Dawson writes, “Many of the people who lost everything I know personally, my children go to school with or are family of my close personal friends. Many are children […] Many are left without jobs and here we are at Christmas.”
Dawson has, in one day, raised over $1,200.The money will be used “to buy Christmas presents for those children who’ve lost it all or whose parents will be delayed a much needed paycheck during this time. The victims of this living nightmare.” Any remaining money will be given to local charities supporting the recovery, and there are many of those.
Dolly Parton, who owns the nearby Pigeon Forge resort Dollywood, has pledged to give $1,000 per month through her Dollywood Foundation to families devastated by the fires.
In addition, Heathen Amy Kincheloe, the Troth’s Steward for Kentucky, is currently taking up a collection of supplies to bring to the area next week. While she doesn’t have personal connections in Gatlinburg, she said that she “is naturally a caring person” and just wanted to help. Kincheloe said that she knows what it’s like to “lose everything.” She is collecting clothes, toys, and basic necessities this Saturday in and around her area. She said, “I live in Dixon, however I can travel to Owensboro, Madisonville, and Evansville IN.” For anyone interested in donating, she said to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org with the title line:donation goods.
There are many other opportunities to assist the people of Gatlinburg and its surrounding towns. A new hashtag campaign was launched to uplift spirits and foster community: #smokeymountainstrong. As a fundraiser for victims, two local news outlets are selling t-shirts with the tag on it.
All the interviewees with whom we spoke said that, at this point, the full extent of the damage and any long-term needs are not yet known. The reality of what happened, and is still happening, has not fully set in. They need time.
Mullikin said, “More than anything. This is our home. We have been deeply affected by the fires.” He was breaking up as he spoke about the mountains and city that he loves. “It is part of who we are inside. We are connected to this place. It just hurts.” Now, he said, there is not much to do but manage basic needs. He did say that, as things settle, he and Tuatha Dea will be doing something more for the city, for the community, and for the beloved and magical Smokey Mountains.
Note: The Knoxville News Sentinel is providing an updated list of the conditions of various buildings and areas as officials are able to make assessment.