Gatlinburg, Tenn., wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and displaced more than 14,000 has left some Miami Valley region residents feeling devastated.
Gov. Bill Haslam called the fatal fire the largest in the state in 100 years.
The wildfires started Nov. 23 and is believed to have been the result of arson, according to Great Smoky Mountain National Park officials.
Charles Alcorn, of Dayton, visits Gatlinburg about 10 to 15 times a year. He has been visiting the popular tourist destination with his grandparents, since he was a child, before purchasing his family’s downtown townhome in 2008, he said.
“We don’t know exactly because they aren’t letting people in or out, but I’ve seen pictures … a big portion of our property is burned down,” Alcorn said. “It’s going to be a long tough process.”
Alcorn, who has invested in other properties in the Gatlinburg area, relies heavily on the rental income.
“It’s a big portion of my business,” he said.
Alcorn plans to return to area as soon as authorities start letting people back into Gatlinburg, he said.
“It’s terrible news,” Alcorn said. “For childhood memories, but also income.”
Alcorn is president of his homeowner association and expects the organization to experience a “substantial loss” of millions of dollars.
Gatlinburg is located near the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the most visited national park in America, according to the city’s website. Gatlinburg attracts more than eleven million visitors a year causing the local population to swell from almost 4,000 to 40,000 in one night.
Terri Wyatt, a 43-year-old Greenville resident, visited the Smoky Mountains area Nov. 21 and stayed for four days.
“It was smoky the entire time we were there,” she said. “We could smell the smoke in the air. But the fires themselves, what you’re seeing now, didn’t break out till we had actually left.”
Wyatt vacations in the Smoky Mountain area twice a year and typically spends a lot of time in the park.
But not this year.
“As you’re heading up into the mountains, you can physically smell the smoke in your car. It kept us out of the park this time. The views were obstructed when you would get out to take pictures.”
Wyatt and her husband were married in Gatlinburg 15 years ago. They renewed their vows during their trip to the city last week. They’ve taken their children there for vacation.
“I went to bed crying last night and I’ve done nothing but cry all day,” Wyatt said. “For me this is devastating cause that’s like my home away from home. I want to retire there.”
Toni Charles, a 69-year-old Xenia resident, traveled to Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort in Pigeon Forge earlier this month before the wildfire.
“My husband and I travel a lot, and I don’t think I’ve stayed at a more beautiful and congenial place than that one,” she said. “… that was my biggest fear, when I heard it, that something would happen to that hotel.”
Rod Good, a West Alexandria native, retired and moved to Gatlinburg in April. Good and his wife Tammy are the only ones who live full-time in their community that has 30 to 40 homes. The remaining homes are all rentals.
On Monday, the Goods were among the thousands of people in the area who were forced to evacuate. As they were preparing to leave their home, a newlywed couple from Kansas, Landon and Marcie Oelke, knocked on their door.
The Oelkes, both age 24, had no vehicle. They took a taxi from the Knoxville airport because they were too young to rent a car.
“Everybody told us it was a safe enough distance away that we should be fine,” Landon Oelke said.
The couple was watching television in the cabin when the power flickered and turned off. Landon Oelke saw a huge orange cloud, about 100 feet or so away, and became worried they didn’t have transportation to leave.
Oelke said he was walking around the area looking for someone with a vehicle when he found Goods cabin with a truck parked outside.
“They would’ve been trapped on the mountain if we weren’t there,” Good said.
Both couples left the area in Good’s pickup truck. They witnessed flames as they drove away from the area, Good said.
Good was able to drive his truck over some trees that had fallen in the road, according to Oelke. The whole city looked like it was burning, he said.
“We were very very fortunate to find Rod and Tammy,” Oelke said. “They were a godsend for sure.”
Good believes they’ve found lifelong friends.
“I’ve asked them if they’ll come back when this is rebuilt. They said they will be back.