Blaze devastates Wears Valley resort area

59 structures are destroyed; 300 firefighters respond
Mar. 18, 2013 @ 08:01 PM

Firefighters almost had a cabin fire under control Sunday evening when embers leapt from the first structure to two more nearby cabins.

From there, it turned into one of the worst fires Sevier County has ever seen, covering about 160 acres near Pigeon Forge as well as destroying about 60 structures and damaging more. As many as 300 firefighters from 50 area agencies responded to the blaze.

Most of the structures were in the Black Bear Ridge Resort. It wasn’t clear how many were rentals and how many were permanent dwellings. At least one family was reportedly displaced from its home, but officials weren’t sure Monday if their house was destroyed.

A North Carolina woman who saw the fire start from her window said the fire had spread through the first cabin before firefighters arrived, but at first it looked like they would keep it from spreading.

“You almost thought they would get it under control, but then it jumped to the roof of two more,” Betty Fore said. With the flames that high on the cabins, and the cabins farther up a steep incline, the firefighters couldn’t get water on them before the fire spread.

Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson was among the first on the scene; his department was called out to assist soon after the first calls came in around 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

Firefighters quickly encountered some of the worst conditions Watson said he’s ever seen. “The wind, and those things being so close together up there all made for more problems,” he said.

By 11 p.m. Sunday, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters had declared a state of emergency in the county. That encourages other regional agencies to send aid, and can also help pave the way for them to request funding from the state and federal government to help recover resources lost or exhausted in the fire. Congressman Phil Roe was also present Monday and said that after seeing the damage, he would ask for additional funds as well, to help with the recovery.

Firefighters converged on the area from all over the county and throughout the region; many fought the wildfires throughout the night and into the next afternoon.

They and law enforcement agencies evacuated people from the rental cabins. Officials were thankful that there were no deaths from the fire and that as of Monday afternoon the only casualties reported came in the form of some emergency responders who were treated for heat exhaustion.

In fact, a quick response from some utility workers and emergency responders helped save a litter of seven puppies found under some stairs at a cabin on Black Bear Cub Way.

Utility workers heard the pups while they were cutting off water to the cabin; Fire Marshal Jay Breeden and others pulled away floorboards and carried the pups to a car, where they were taken down the mountain and eventually given over to the Sevier County Humane Society. Unfortunately, firefighter did not locate the mother.

“We’re bottle feeding them,” said Jayne Vaughn of the Humane Society. “They’re little butterballs. They seem to be husky-retriever mixes. in great condition. Momma, whoever she is, did a fine job with them.”

Once the puppies are a little older and have recovered, they will be available for adoption.

The agencies also included the Tennessee Division of Forestry, which had teams going out onto the ridges to try to douse hot spots and to set backfires that would consume fuel between the fires and vulnerable areas. The resources also included two Blackhawk helicopters that would carry water from Douglas Lake or other sources and dump it onto blazes that firefighter couldn’t reach on the steep, rocky terrain.

“The helicopters are helping a ton,” Watson said.

Taking a break from the fire to eat, Jacob Hyde of the Sevier County Rescue Squad said he and squadmate J.R. Carr had been going since the initial call Sunday. “We’ll be going back up as soon as we eat,” he said.

The wind had been carrying the fire from cabin to cabin and across roads, he said.

Watson described the same sorts of conditions. “The wind whipped up and pushed it ... across the road,” he said. “You can’t understand that type of inferno it is.”

The fire didn’t threaten any of Pigeon Forge’s tourist attractions, but it did reach the edges of the city and force evacuations of Priscilla Heights Lane and Dodgen Log Cabin Rentals Monday afternoon. Officials said there were few occupants in those areas.

While the fire crews struggled to control the blaze, some heavy showers from a system of storms that moved through the area later in the day appeared to help extinguish it fairly quickly.

By about 6 p.m. Monday, Sevier County Emergency Management Agency Director John Matthews said they had told most of the firefighters they could enjoy a buffet of food that had been offered by local residents and businesses, and then head home.

“We’re keeping some crew around tonight,” he said. “Obviously compared what we’ve been doing it’s a skeleton crew.”

In all, the fire destroyed 59 structures and damaged six more, Matthews said. Most were rental properties, but at least one local man reportedly lost his home.

Elmer King owned a house on top of the mountain; it was actually there before the resort, said his daughter, Kelly Large.

He evacuated and stayed in a hotel Sunday night, but the house was destroyed.

“It was actually on top of the mountain there. It’s gone now,” Large said.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com