SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — It started with a burning smell in the distance, but many people thought little of it and went about their regular business.
“As the day went on, we could see the skies get more and more orange, and knew something was going on,” said Joan Hansen.
What was going on turned out to be raging wildfires that would damage or destroy hundreds of buildings in and around the eastern Tennessee resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Hansen and her husband, Hal, of Piqua, were in the Gatlinburg area visiting their sons, David and Jonathan, on an extended Thanksgiving holiday when the fires broke out on Nov. 28.
“There wasn’t like an all-alert or anything. We didn’t really find out till we’d gone out to eat in Pigeon Forge,” Hansen recalled. “We were in two separate cars and my daughter-in-law (Heather) called from the first car and said, ‘Don’t come back; they’ve closed off the mountain.’”
From there, Hansen said the winds picked up “to hurricane force,” giving fuel to the fast-moving flames.
“There were power lines coming down … it was like a firestorm; I don’t know how to even explain it,” she said. “It was extremely fast and people did not have warning at all.”
As of Friday morning, a dozen people had died as a direct result of the fire, and another succumbed to a heart attack suffered while or after fleeing the fire. In the wake of such tragedies, Hansen is all too aware of how fortunate she and her family are.
“David, Heather and (grandson) Hunter lost everything, and we lost what we came down with, but it’s totally replaceable. It’s not a big deal,” she said.
Hansen and her husband stayed with son Jonathan in Sevierville until returning to Piqua over the weekend.
The displays of generosity of more fortunate people in the area have been “amazing,” Hansen said.
“It’s been overwhelming to see people doing things for other people — the shelters opening for people who can’t go back, the kindness of the hotel people, just all the nice people,” she said. “The outpouring of love and generosity in Sevier County has just been amazing.”
That spirit of giving extends all the way back to Miami County, where colleagues at Hansen’s workplace, Upper Valley Family Care, are taking donations of items and money to help the Hansen family rebuild their lives. Donations can be brought to either of the practice’s offices at 200 Kienle Drive in Piqua, or 700 S. Stanfield Road in Troy. For more details, call (937) 573-2095.
Their harrowing experience in Tennessee won’t deter the couple from future visits, Hansen said. In fact, she encourages others to help the resort areas and their residents revive and rebuild.
“This area has not been defeated. People need to come here and support the community. There are tons of places to stay and restaurants to go to,” she said. “The whole area depends on tourists.”
Reach Belinda M. Paschal at (937) 451-3341.