The Gatlinburg wildfires — the largest in the state in the past century — have been extinguished, leaving hundreds of home and business owners looking for ways to cope with their losses and rebuild their lives.
Joan Hansen and her husband, Hal, left their home in Piqua on Nov. 24 to spend Thanksgiving Day with their sons in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The couple was staying with their son David, a Piqua High School graduate, in the Chalet Village home he shares with his wife, Heather, and their 6-year-old son, Hunter.
On Monday, Hansen noticed something was wrong while walking her son’s dog, Lucy.
“It smelled like somebody had regular wood burning or something,” she said. “It was really strong, but I didn’t see anything.”
Later in the day, the Hansens saw ash dropping around them and on their car’s windshield.
“We thought, ‘This is getting more serious,’ but we went on about our business,” Hansen said. “Nobody seemed to be rushing.”
Around 1 or 2 p.m., the sky looked orange but they didn’t notice any flames. A few hours later they went out for pizza.
Before they could head back to her son’s house, he called to say the road was closed.
“Nobody can get through,” she remembers him saying. “There’s fire on both sides of the road. It’s totally ablaze. It’s a firestorm.”
David Hansen’s home was destroyed in the wildfire on Monday. The family found the skeletal remains of their cat among the rubble that used to be their home in the Smoky Mountains. They are still looking for Lucy.
Upper Valley Family Care, where Hansen works in Piqua, is collecting monetary donations to help the family, said Becky Wiltheiss, who works at the medical office with Hansen.
“It’s kind of like we’re a family,” Wiltheiss said. “Anytime any of us are hurting or in need, we all rally around.”
Hansen said she is overwhelmed by the prayers and kindness of people during this difficult time.
“We’re so touched by people’s generosity,” she said. “… The generosity and their love has made the greatest impact on my family.”
By Thursday, authorities in east Tennessee announced that the death toll from the wildfires had risen to 10, and 80 people had been treated at local hospitals.
Officials also reported that several people who had been reported missing had been found, and they would continuing their search.
All roads in the area are expected to reopen by 10 a.m. Friday, according to officials. Several businesses were open Thursday.
Homeowners, business owners and lease-holders will be given limited access to certain areas between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. through Sunday. There are still a few restricted areas where people are not allowed because of ongoing searches, electrical wire hazards and other dangers.
Officials believe that all the fires have been extinguished, although hot spots may remain in some areas. Also, the search for people is winding down and a large percentage of the city and Sevier County have been combed, officials said.
More than 200 people spent the night Wednesday at the Gatlinburg Red Cross shelter, said Sarah Basel, a Tennessee Red Cross spokeswoman.
“The number has gone down as each day has gone on, which is a good sign,” she said. “We do still have a lot of people here who are uncertain about whether or not they can go back to their home, or if their home is even livable anymore. So, there’s a lot of uncertainty.”