Note: This story was last updated at 4:30 p.m.
Oak Ridge firefighters helped rescue 12 people and four dogs from three cars surrounded by fires behind Dollywood near Pigeon Forge on Monday.
The 12 visitors had been staying in rental cabins behind the Dollywood theme park.
The rescue happened at about 11 p.m. Monday after wildfires fueled by high winds spread from Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the Gatlinburg area.
Before the rescue, an Oak Ridge Fire Department crew, along with five Maryville firefighters, had responded to several fire-related situations in Pigeon Forge, most of them in the Dollywood area, a City of Oak Ridge press release said. Pigeon Forge is near Gatlinburg.
At about 11 p.m., the firefighters were dispatched to Mitchell Road to help a man trapped in a cabin with fire all around him. But firefighters were unable to get there because the road was blocked by downed trees and power poles, the press release said. Firefighters 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, the press release said.
Oak Ridge Fire Chief Darryl Kerley had been given a cell phone number to call the man who was trapped. When he called the number, a woman answered the phone, the press release said.
“She told me they were all about to die,” 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 press release said. 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,” 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.”
The City of Oak Ridge had been 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 at 2:33 p.m. Monday. A five-person crew was dispatched, with the city manager’s approval, to the Pigeon Forge Emergency Operations Center. When they arrived, 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, the press release said.
Since then, Oak Ridge has supported Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge with one fire engine and five employees. Fire department employees have rotated out of the area every 12 hours due to the physically demanding work they are 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, the press release said.
“There were agencies from all over East Tennessee supporting this operation,” Kerley said, “and our city is honored to be one of many on the ground in Sevier County helping wherever we can.”
Authorities were still fighting some fires in the Gatlinburg area late Wednesday afternoon. At that time, authorities said seven people died, and more than 700 buildings have been damaged or destroyed.
On Tuesday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said it was the largest fire in Tennessee in 100 years, and 400 personnel from many different departments have responded.
Other local agencies that have responded are fire departments from Andersonville, Claxton, Clinton, Marlow, and Oliver Springs. Anderson County EMS sent its mass casualty response vehicle on Monday night, and they sent three ambulances Tuesday morning. Anderson County Sheriff’s Department and Oak Ridge Police Department have been on stand-by in case Sevier County needs additional law enforcement personnel. Anderson County Emergency Management Director Steve Payne has been in the Gatlinburg area offering whatever help he can, and Anderson County EMS Director Nathan Sweet has also been there, serving in a command post for emergency medical response. On Monday night, Sweet sent the county’s Ambulance-Bus and two critical care trucks—and they remained there Tuesday.
The Gatlinburg fires have been, by far, the worst in a month that has been marked by a string of fires during a drought in the Southeast. The Gatlinburg fires have burned more than an estimated 15,000 acres.
About half of the fires in Tennessee have been arsons, according to state officials.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See previous stories on the Gatlinburg area fires, including the local response, here.
See previous stories on brush fires and forest fires in Anderson County and Morgan County in November in this section.
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