GATLINBURG – Ryan Williamson recalls the propane tanks exploding one by one as the houses on the tops of ridges overlooking the Spur burst into flames.
“I could hear them over my chainsaw,” he said. “Boom! Boom! It was like bombs going off.”
On the fateful evening of Nov. 28 when a wildfire swept through Sevier County, Williamson and fellow National Park Service ranger Andrew Herrington were on that stretch of U.S. 321/441 between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg called the Spur.
As far as the two know, they were the only ones there with chainsaws. Those chainsaws, they believe, are the reason many people didn’t die on that road that night.
“Many people would have burned to death, I think,” Williamson said matter-of-factly.
There certainly was the potential.
When the two rangers arrived after dark that evening, a line of what they estimated held more than 1,000 vehicles was gridlocked for more than a mile and a half coming out of Gatlinburg. Treetop-high flames came nearly up to the road shoulders, the wind was howling, and the smoke was blinding.
“It looked like the end of the world,” Herrington said.
With traffic stopped and their truck at the end of the line, Herrington jumped from the passenger seat and trotted, carrying a chainsaw more than a mile to the front where a large pine had fallen and was blocking the road.
He was about to begin sawing when he noticed a man and two boys leaving their car and approaching.
“I asked them to get back in their car,” he said. “They took off running ahead of me. Then everyone in their cars saw them and were starting to get out, and I was like, ‘No! No! Get back in your cars! I’ll take care of it!
“Once you get one abandoned car in the road, some people panic,” he explained. “You’d have had cars blocking the road, people jumping into the river.”
“An abandoned car is death for everyone unless you’ve moved it off the road,” Williamson said.
Fortunately, Herrington’s words got people returned to their vehicles. Williamson, still in the back of the line, had pulled the truck over, parked it and caught up with Herrington 10 minutes later. The two were able to clear the tree out and get the line moving.
It wasn’t the first tree they had cut that evening; it wouldn’t be the last.
“It was a hell of a night,” Herrington said.