‘The mountains are burning down’: Wildfires ravage Gatlinburg’s tight-knit community

When Brittney Martel drove to work Monday around 2:30 p.m., she was oblivious to the burgeoning wildfires just miles away that would devastate her community and claim the lives of at least three people. As she pulled into downtown Gatlinburg, Tenn., she saw thick, heavy smoke wafting overhead, signaling that something very near was ablaze.

Ash started to rain down. She started to panic.

“There were no people on the road. There were no tourists walking up and down. People had vanished, and it looked like a deserted ghost town,” Martel told Yahoo News. “At that point, I still had no idea what was going on. I literally became terrified.”

The fire hadn’t gotten much attention on the news yet. She recalled the sky being an eerie orange color and Gatlinburg having an “almost apocalyptic” feel. To her, the town looked like the site of a bombing or a war zone.

Martel, 32, pulled her 2009 black Honda Civic into the parking lot of Smokies’ Elks Lodge, where she works as a bartender, and asked the few people she saw what was going on.

“The mountains are burning down,” someone said.

“What do you mean the mountains are burning down?” she responded.

That’s when she first heard that a fire broke out on Chimney Tops, high winds caused the flames to spread quickly, and some people were evacuating.

“I had never been more scared in my life because I had no idea what to do,” she recalled Tuesday. “We had no evacuation plans. We had never prepared for this. When you live in Gatlinburg, even though it’s in the Smokey Mountains, you never think that your whole entire town is going to be wiped out due to a fire.”

The gigantic wildfire in eastern Tennessee that grew to engulf at least 500 acres is part of a larger pattern of blazes throughout the southeastern United States at the tail end of one of the nation’s hottest years on record.

A structure and vehicle are damaged from the wildfires around Gatlinburg, Tenn., on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Photo: Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

A structure and vehicle are damaged from the wildfires around Gatlinburg, Tenn., on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. (Photo: Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

Slideshow: Drought and arson ignite wildfires across the Southeast >>>

Wildfires arise occasionally in the Southeast but they do not pose the same sort of regular threat that they do in the West, where they break out every year.

Heath Hockenberry, national fire weather program manager for the National Weather Service, said the Southeast has a general three to five-year reoccurrence in which outbreaks occur in Tennessee, Georgia or the Carolinas.

“The confluence of factors that led to this has been a northern-leaning jet stream. It’s been quite warm, and that has kept the cold air locked into the northern extreme of North America, so we don’t get those low-digging, low-pressure systems that really carry Gulf moisture up in the fall months,” Hockenberry said to Yahoo News. “That combined with fields that are stressed from lack of rain … that’s really the driving factor.”

In other words, a lack of rain has resulted in fields that are bone-dry in states like Tennessee, Georgia and Kentucky. To make matters worse, weather patterns have stopped moisture from the Gulf of Mexico.

“All it takes is a downed power line or a careless fire to get things started,” he said.

Martel worked her full shift as the fires and threat intensified. The mandatory evacuation order would not come until late that night. She recalled watching the fire and its haunting red glow spread across the mountains climbing into view. After locking up and walking back to the parking lot, Martel’s eyes started to burn. She described her drive home to her cabin at the Glades Arts and Crafts Community as terrifying: police speeding past in all directions, downed trees on the road and a steady stream of debris falling from the sky.

Gatlinburg is a little more than 200 miles east of Nashville. Though it’s a mountain resort city of just under 4,000 permanent residents with a large tourism industry, it feels very much like a close-knit small town, according to Martel.

“We were watching our whole lives turn to ashes in front of us,” she said. “Nobody had any plans. It took everybody by surprise. Literally, in a matter of 10 hours, it completely changed the course of so many people’s lives.”

She finally got to return to her home Tuesday afternoon and was relieved to discover it was still intact.

Martel, who was born and raised in Nashville, moved up to Gatlinburg about 10 years ago to become an actress. She would sing, dance and act in family-friendly tourist shows in Gatlinburg and the nearby town of Pigeon Forge (including performances at Dolly Parton’s theme park Dollywood) before becoming a hairstylist and bartender. A few years ago, she was the lead actress in the interactive Great Smoky Mountain Murder Mystery Dinner Show.

Thick smoke from area forest fires looms in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. (Photo: Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

Thick smoke from area forest fires looms in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. (Photo: Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

“We’re all still very lost. We’re all still very confused,” she said. “We don’t know what to do. We don’t know where to go from here.”

The wildfires likely prompted more than 14,000 residents and visitors to evacuate Gatlinburg alone and many others to leave the Great Smoky Mountains area. Authorities said that overnight four people were taken to hospitals for severe burns and 150 structures in Sevier County were destroyed or damaged.

At a Tuesday morning press conference, Gatlinburg fire chief Greg Miller reminded listeners that they are not merely assessing the damage but still actively fighting fire, in some places where it’s still too smoky to see clearly. He requested that motorists stay off the roads so that emergency personnel can travel quickly.

“It’s difficult to go out into a community and try to protect and serve others when your own property and everything that you’ve worked for is burning down. But that’s what these men and women have done,” he said of first responders.

At the same press conference, Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner thanked the city, county, state and park officials for their “incredible response” to the firestorm.

“Our community has suffered through significant storm damage over the years, but nothing like this. Over the 10 square miles of our city, about half of it has been impacted,” Werner told reporters.

During natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, Martel said, kindhearted people throughout America band together and help each other out — that’s what local residents are hoping for now.

“Most important are prayers. We just need everyone to come together,” she said.

Late Tuesday afternoon, authorities confirmed that at least three people had died in the wildlife and about a dozen were injured.

The American Red Cross is accepting donations to help evacuees and people whose homes or businesses have been destroyed in Gatlinburg and the surrounding area. The organization is also accepting volunteers.

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