Kingsport fire chief describes 'unbelievable' Gatlinburg blaze

Matthew Lane • Nov 29, 2016 at 3:11 PM

KINGSPORT — Professional and volunteer firefighters from across Northeast Tennessee responded to the wildfires burning Gatlinburg and the surrounding mountains Monday evening, working throughout the night to extinguish the fires and save as many structures as possible.

The Kingsport Fire Department sent five firefighters and an engine truck, while departments in Sullivan County, Greene County and Washington County also sent firefighters and emergency personnel to help with the job.

Kingsport Fire Chief Craig Dye went down to Gatlinburg with his men Monday evening and said the scene of the town burning was “just unbelievable.

“There was stuff all over the road, fire and embers everywhere when we got up there. It was wet and rough and hard to see where we were going,” Dye said. “(The police) got us through and we went up and into Gatlinburg. It was burning everywhere we could see.”

Wildfires forced thousands to evacuate Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on Monday, and by Tuesday morning, state officials reported that at least 100 homes and 30 businesses had been destroyed by the flames, though that number will probably rise.

Three people died and at least a dozen were injured.

Dollywood, Ripley’s Aquarium and Ober Gatlinburg were spared from the flames, but according to reports, 100 buildings of the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa were destroyed.

When Kingsport’s contingent of firefighters arrived on the scene, Dye said, they and other firefighters gathered at a staging area near a high school and were assigned to a particular area of town. Basically, their job was to put out as many fires as possible and check the homes, condos and hotels for any remaining civilians.

Dye said they didn’t have to rescue any civilians, though one man did refuse to leave his hotel room with his dog. Later on, when the hotel beside his burned down, other fire officials finally convinced him to leave.

The KFD’s assigned area was about a quarter-mile up the hill as you travel toward Cosby, just before you arrive in the main strip in downtown Gatlinburg.

“As we went through the gap between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, we could see fire all over the mountains. It looked like 40 campfires and some were bigger than others,” Dye said. “As we went past the west gate, you could see the outlines of the big cabins. They were outlined in fire.

“Stuff was just burning everywhere, and we were running through all kinds of stuff on the road.”

Kingsport’s firefighters worked throughout the night, at least 15 hours straight, and finally left at around noon on Tuesday. Dye said he saw at least 100 vehicles from various fire departments and emergency services.

When KFD members left, most of the fires had been extinguished, though some officials were still working on a few lingering spots, Dye said.

“We needed everybody we had and then some, and a lot (of buildings), we just had to let burn,” Dye said. “The whole end of the state, everybody showed up, did a good job, and worked with everybody like they knew them.

“If it had not been stepped on so quick with volunteers and others, they could not have handled it by themselves.”