Dunlap volunteer firefighter Chris Walker spoke at a press conference Monday morning about the Gatlinburg Fire. Other Dunlap VFD personnel that were dispatched to Gatlinburg were Dan White (not pictured) and (l-r) Rodney Smith, Jody Lockhart, and Mark Easterly. Dunlap Fire Chief Norman Hatfield is at far right.
Dec. 5, 2016 -- Five men from the Dunlap Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) spent three days helping rein in the Gatlinburg Fire last week. Returning home to Dunlap on Friday to a hero's welcome, they called a press conference Monday morning to report on what they had seen in Sevier County.
Speaking on behalf of the crew that went to Gatlinburg, firefighter Chris Walker told news crews from Chattanooga that the local fire department had been keeping an eye on the news about the huge fire that started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Monday, Nov. 28.
"Monday is when we first started looking at what was going on," he said. "Tuesday morning Tri-State Mutual Aid contacted us."
The cooperative regional organization asked if Dunlap VFD could send an engine crew to assist the Gatlinburg and Sevier County fire departments battle the blaze.
"When we got up there, in Pigeon Forge, we began to see the smoke," Walker recounted to reporters. "On the parkway, it was like driving through fog. The (downtown) strip was still intact, but one block to either side we could see how the fire had hit."
There were many fire departments there from around the region, Walker said, with the largest from Nashville. The Nashville Fire Department began requesting the Dunlap crew to assist them.
"The Nashville fire chief says, 'I want to work with the Dunlap Fire Department.' It made us feel proud, to have that amount of trust with a big city fire department like that," Walker said. "But no one department can take the credit. It was definitely a team effort."
The Dunlap crew was assigned to search and rescue for 10 hours that night, going through everything from homes to burned-out cars to a 10-story hotel. Some people who had not evacuated were checked to make sure they were okay, and live animals that had been left behind were turned over to the Humane Society.
"We got to our hotel and got about four hours sleep, then we were back out on the night shift," Walker said.
When one of the reporters asked if the Gatlinburg Fire was the biggest disaster he had seen, Walker reminded them that he had seen the 2011 tornado damage in Dunlap, "but as far as the area, this was the largest I've ever seen. The amount of loss is just overwhelming."
According to news reports, the fire started at Chimney Tops and was spread by 80-90 m.p.h. winds in advance of a strong front. Hundreds of firefighters were called in from throughout the state to help fight the fire, and when it was over, an estimated 1,684 structures were damaged, 134 people injured, and 14 fatalities reported so far.
The weather played a pivotal role in the fire, first fanning the flames with hurricane-force winds and then helping to quench the fire with rain.
"On Thursday night they told us they wanted to let the business owners back in for the weekend," Walker said. "Anything and everything that might be smouldering had to be put out."
The hardest part of the three-day stint was search and rescue, Walker said. Even though they did not find any bodies, there is that thought in the back of each one's mind when they look under, behind, or inside a burned-out hull.
"The mental preparation," he explained, "10 hours of doing that, can get exhausting."
A structure that was burned up in the Gatlinburg Fire. Photo by Dunlap VFD.
The other difficult part of the job was dealing with unknown territory, he added.
"It's more hazardous," he said. "Going through smoke on those winding mountain roads with all the power out, in a city that is not known to us."
Walker said he and his companions were thankful they did not find any fatalities, and the number of people killed could have been much higher.
"With everything we saw, it's nothing short of a miracle that number is not higher," he said. "Everything's gone, completely destroyed."
When reporters asked about recent forest fires in Sequatchie County, Dunlap Fire Chief Norman Hatfield said his department only recently had fought a large fire just north of Dunlap. The Smith Mountain Fire burned "in both directions," he said, toward Blue Sewanee Mountain and Smith Mountain.
"We were pulling 18-hour shifts on those fires," he said. "It burned about 955 acres, but fortunately we didn't lose any houses."
While the five-man crew was gone to help in Gatlinburg, Pikeville Fire Department was on call to help Dunlap with any structure fires, Hatfield said.
TV news crews interviewed Dunlap volunteer firefighters Monday.
"That's what volunteer firefighters do," he said. "Our county is all volunteer departments. This was an all-volunteer crew. They're used to just dropping whatever they're doing and going, to protect lives and property."
The five men that volunteered for duty in Gatlinburg were: Rodney Smith, a linemen with TVA; Jody Lockhart, a detective with the Sequatchie County Sheriff's Department; Mark Easterly, park director for the city of Dunlap; Chris Walker, a Hamilton County patrolman, and Dan White, who was working as a dispatcher for 911 emergency but left Gatlinburg a day before the rest to start police academy in Chattanooga. After completing the 22-week course, he plans to join the Chattanooga Police Department.