Firefighters Rescue 12 People Trapped by Wildfire During Mutual Aid Mission to Gatlinburg

November 30, 2016

At 2:33 p.m. on Monday, November 28, the City of Oak Ridge was contacted by the East Tennessee Mutual Aid District to send fire crews to Sevier County to assist with the wildfires in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. A five person crew was dispatched, with the City Manager’s approval, to the Pigeon Forge Emergency Operations Center. Upon arrival, the crew and fire chief were assigned to support the evacuation of the Wears Valley area as well as support fire suppression in Wears Valley.

Over the next 12 hour period, the Oak Ridge fire crew, along with five Maryville firefighters, worked several fire situations in Pigeon Forge, most of them in the Dollywood area. One of the more significant events was the rescue of 12 visitors who had been staying in rental cabins behind the Dollywood theme park.

At approximately 11 p.m. Monday evening, the crew was dispatched to Mitchell Road to help a man trapped in a cabin with fire all around him. Firefighters attempted to gain access, but found the road blocked by downed trees and power poles. They began cutting trees until they encountered downed power lines and transformers. Once Sevier County Electric System workers arrived and cut electrical power to the area, the crew again entered the fire area to rescue the man.

Oak Ridge Fire Chief Darryl Kerley had been given a cell phone number to make contact with the man who was trapped. When he called the number, a woman answered the phone.

“She told me they were all about to die,” Chief Kerley said. “I asked who was with her and she told me there were a total of 12 people sitting in their cars with fire all around. I told her we were on the way to rescue them. A few moments later, she said she could see our flashlights through the smoke.”

Firefighters spotted three cars in the middle of the road with fire approaching rapidly on both sides. When the fire crew reached the vehicles, the people inside told them they were too afraid to leave. Firefighters reassured them, saying they had to come with them immediately to get to safety. The crew helped all 12 people, as well as four dogs, get to a trolley that transported them to the Pigeon Forge shelter.

“In my 39 years of service, this has been the worst disaster I have seen in East Tennessee,” Chief Kerley said. “Every direction we looked, there were fires burning on the mountainside. We saw cabins explode into fire on the ridge tops and there was nothing we could do. It was a totally helpless feeling.”

Oak Ridge has supported Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge with one fire engine and five employees since Monday afternoon. Fire department employees rotated out of the area every 12 hours due to the physically demanding work they were performing in the mountains.

“We were saddened to learn of the dire situation facing our friends and neighbors in Sevier County, but thankful to be able to offer assistance when it was needed most,” Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said. “Our fire department’s personnel, equipment and expertise helped save lives. We will continue to be there for our sister cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge long after these fires are extinguished.”

The City has also provided two Battalion Chiefs to work at the Incident Command Center in Gatlinburg, providing logistics and planning support. “There were agencies from all over East Tennessee supporting this operation,” Chief Kerley added, “and our City is honored to be one of many on the ground in Sevier County helping wherever we can.”