Rain helps Pigeon Forge fire; more than 60 cabins destroyed

Rain helps Pigeon Forge fire; more than 60 cabins destroyed

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"We were experiencing the absolute worst firefighting conditions known to mankind up there," Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson said. "We were experiencing the absolute worst firefighting conditions known to mankind up there," Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson said.
The fire broke out in the Wears Valley area near Pigeon Forge. (Source: Google) The fire broke out in the Wears Valley area near Pigeon Forge. (Source: Google)
A helicopter brings in water to dump on the flames. A helicopter brings in water to dump on the flames.
About 150 residents and renters of nearby cabins were evacuated. About 150 residents and renters of nearby cabins were evacuated.
John Helt told 6 News he was working on a cabin when he saw the flames leap from a nearby cabin. (source: John Helt) John Helt told 6 News he was working on a cabin when he saw the flames leap from a nearby cabin. (source: John Helt)

PIGEON FORGE (WATE) - A fire that began Sunday afternoon at a mountainside cabin in Pigeon Forge and quickly spread to more than 50 more cabins continued to burn Monday morning, but was helped in the evening by a passing thunderstorm.

The fire began around 4 p.m. at a cabin on Black Bear Cub Way and quickly spread to nearby structures, burning in total 59 cabins at the Black Bear Ridge Resort. Six other cabins outside the development were also lost.

By 6 p.m. Monday evening, rains moving through the area helped to control the fire and only a skeleton crew remained on scene. The Sevier County EMA Director told 6 News he was optimistic that the incident could be over by Tuesday morning.

When the fire was at its zenith, more than 200 acres were burning.

"The first portion of this just started as a house fire. It led to several others just next to it catching on fire," Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson said. "Propane tanks have been exploding."

John Helt told 6 News he was working on a cabin when he saw the flames leap from a nearby cabin. He said it appeared to him that the fire started in a hot tub on the cabin's deck.

Wind helped to quickly spread the fire.

"We were experiencing the absolute worst firefighting conditions known to mankind up there," Watson said.

Crews from 25 departments worked through the night, but by daylight smoke and flames could still be seen on the ridge. There were fears the wind could fan the flames over the ridge to other cabins.

Helicopters were flown in to help fight the fire, dropping 300 gallon loads at a time.

"We were dropping 700 gallons every two minutes on hot spots and we had forestry agents in the back of the aircrafts with us so with their expertise, talking to their guys on the ground, we're able to put the water exactly where it's needed so we're making a lot of progress," said Major Jay Dayson, an operations officer with the National Guard.

About 150 residents and renters of nearby cabins were evacuated.

Among them were Diane Conneely and her son, Joey Hodgkins, from Boston.

"We got a call about 5:00 saying that our cabin was on fire," Hodgkins said. "We were all freaking out. We didn't know what was going on."

The family was visiting a nearby attraction, so they weren't in danger, but most of their belongings were destroyed.

"Clothes, phones and stuff, basically a lot of what we use every day," Hodgkins said.

The property owner found a condo for them to stay Sunday night.

Conneely said they were grateful they and others were able to stay safe.

"Well, that's priceless. That's just one thing we're happy for," she said. "We thank God we're alive and everyone's safe. Our possessions can be replaced.

Sevier County officials are asking people to stay away from the area as several emergency vehicles need access to the road.

No injuries have been reported.

Resorts loses millions in damaged property

The developer of the Black Bear Ridge Resort says she is devastated by the loss.

Joyce Whaley McCarter told 6 News that her entire staff is working desperately to find new places for displaced residents to stay.

On its website, Black Bear Ridge is described as "an exclusive log cabin rental community" with luxury, premier custom built homes.

The 185 cabin resort was built in 2003.

Now, dozens of those cabins have gone up in smoke.

"It's sort of devastating. You see people losing their homes," said McCarter.

McCarter and her brother developed the community, where homeowners can buy properties and then them rent out.

She says once the fire started, it moved extremely fast.

"I'd never seen anything like it before. It was just complete flames and heat coming off of it," she said.

In just a few more minutes, home after home was scorched.

"By the time I got to the resort, which was maybe 10 minutes, two of the cabins had already burnt to the ground. And then the fire just moved up the mountain after that," said McCarter.

Many of those cabins held residents and vacationers who, thankfully, made it out alive.

"We had a seven bedroom. They lost everything they had in the cabin. Had a lot of honeymoon couples that were there that got what they could and got out," said McCarter.

McCarter and her staff at Pigeon Forge Cabins & Rentals are working to find somewhere for these people to stay.

"We're calling each one of them individually, moving them to different cabins or refunding monies back so they can find a place to stay for vacation," said McCarter.

She says they hope to rebuild, but don't have an estimate on if or when that will actually begin.

McCarter says its going to take a long time to recover the millions of dollars they've lost in the fire.

"Lived here all my life and it's a beautiful place, so we want people to keep coming back," she said.

The fast-moving fire burned those cabins, which sit very close together, to the ground in just a few hours.

Homeowners worry about future of development

Sevier County officials said all 150 evacuees voluntarily left.

One cabin owner told 6 News he wasn't in town when the fire broke out and learned about the news miles away in Alabama.

"It looked like skeletal remains," President of Black Bear Ridge Homeowners and cabin owner Andy Entrekin said. "It almost looked like a graveyard."

Entrekin owns two of the 59 cabins destroyed in the fire.

One cabin, Splashing Bear Lodge, was a five-story resort with six bedrooms and a pool.

"We really worked so hard these past three or four years past all these foreclosure disasters to get the resort back in good shape again, so now that we're really making good progress, this happens and it's pretty gut wrenching," Entrekin said.

Entrekin owns another three-story cabin that was destroyed in the fire.

He also owns another cabin that wasn't completely destroyed but did suffer substantial damage, though the extent is still unknown.

Entrekin said he believes a fourth cabin that he owns was not damaged.

Entrekin said during the busy season, some resorts make up to $5,600 a week and said he worries the fire will not only hurt business for the cabins destroyed, but also for the ones near the remains of the burned ones.

"Do you really want to come to beautiful Gatlinburg and see charred out wood or remains of a burned out cabin?" Entrekin said. "It definitely hurts those values, the rental values."

Jim Blount also owns a cabin in Black Bear Ridge but said he believes his property was not damaged in the fire.

"It looks like we may be safe," Blount said. "It looks like it started higher up than what ours is and went obviously up."

Blount said he also worries about the negative economic impact to the area.

"I'm more concerned about the whole resort area itself," Blount said. "By having close to half of them destroyed, what's going to happen with the resort? Is it going to be able to stay and do well? That's the concern more than anything right now."

Families displaced by fire seek refuge at hotel, unsure if homes still stand

For the families displaced by the fire, they still do not know if their homes are one of the 59 structures that are no longer standing.

"Well we really now just want to know if we have a home or if we don't have a home, we're just waiting," Michelle Johnson, one of the displaced homeowners, said.

For all Michelle and her daughter Courtney know, baby pictures and birth certificates could be all they have left.

The fire moved quickly, giving them just minutes to grab their belongings.

"Literally the whole sky was filled with smoke. It was probably one of the scariest things I've ever seen," said Courtney Johnson.

"I get the cat at the last minute, and they're saying go, go, get out, and I look back there's the fire," Michelle said.

The Johnson's say their pets were their main concern.

Thanks to the owner of the Kingwood Inn, they have a place to stay.

"I feel like if it was me I'd want someone to help me," said King Wood Inn owner Mary Miller.

Mary Miller opened her doors for 14 families, providing free shelter and finding local restaurants to donate food.

For the Johnson's, the hospitality is helpful as they try to stay optimistic.

"Everything else can be replaced. Childhood memories and everything, everything, maybe it's ok, I'm going to think positive."

But even if they get the news they're dreading, they have hope.

"I know that if we don't have a home, then there's a ton of people opening their hearts to us."

And in the end, they haven what matters most: each other.

"We're all together, home is where the heart is."

 Mayor considers new building codes

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters says he is looking into the building codes for resort developments in light of the incident.

"A lot of the developments we have came in before our rules were revised, so we've done that but we need to take a further look at it and this will be an opportunity to do that," said Waters.

They plan to do those checks in the coming months.

6 News Anchor/Reporter HAYLEY HARMON, 6 News Reporter SAMANTHA MANNING and 6 News Reporter ALEXIS ZOTOS contributed to this report.

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