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.
‘What are the odds?’
Although both rangers graduated as forestry majors from the University of Tennessee, they didn’t really know each other until after becoming park rangers.
That morning, Williamson, from Cosby, was taking a class on tree-felling at the Twin Creeks area.
“I had two chainsaws with me: my personal chainsaw and my work one,” he said. “I don’t ride around with two chainsaws every day.”
“What are the odds?” asked Herrington.
Fortunately, he had them that day. Also fortunate, both he and Herrington are country boys who had grown up with chainsaws and are expert in knowing how to use them. The chainsaws were well-maintained, one almost new. The two rangers had red cards, meaning they are certified to do chainsaw work.
The smoke was starting to get so thick that Williamson’s class was called off at about 10 a.m.
Herrington, who is a seasonal ranger who lives in Deals Gap, N.C., was not taking the class but was in the Gatlinburg area early that morning because it was his first day back on the job. He works in the Twentymile area of the park in North Carolina, but on his first day he was required to go to park headquarters next to the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg.
With the fire heating up, he was ordered to go back to North Carolina and get his fire gear, which meant a nearly four-hour round trip.
The two had separate assignments at first: Williamson to the Little River Trail to gain fire information, Herrington to Ski Mountain Road as a lookout.
Both ended up back at park headquarters at the same time and were told to clear the buildings there, which were nearly already empty by then, but they did find a couple stragglers.
“We told them to get out now, not in five minutes while you collect your things. Leave now,” Williamson said.
Next job was to escort several workers from the 700 Group at the headquarters campus to where a new office was being set up in Pigeon Forge. The 700 Group coordinates communication among Park Service employees in the park and operates much like a 911 center.
They then proceeded to the Gatlinburg Bypass from the Sugarlands side and the trouble really started.
The wind was already blowing hard, flames which started on the right, city-side of the road were jumping and spreading to other side.
“It was raining embers on us,” Herrington said. “Everything was burning.”
The two made it to Campbell Lead Road, but decided the bypass was not going to work as an escape route. They headed back down toward Sugarlands.
“I was getting scared because the smoke was so thick that I couldn’t see the road,” Williamson said. “Had there been a tree across it, I would never have seen it.”
Once they reached the exit, they communicated to a supervisor that they were closing the bypass and shut the gate at that end so other vehicles would not try to exit that way.
They headed to Gatlinburg and, to their surprise, saw a car driving in the other direction toward the park. They turned that vehicle around, then used their truck to block the Parkway at the last stoplight on the town’s edge, preventing others from driving into the park.
They remained there for about 10 minutes until another emergency vehicle showed up, then heard on their radio that trees were falling on the Spur.
The ride through Gatlinburg was eerie.
They weren't sure what time it was. They couldn't even tell if it was day or night because the smoke was so thick. Most of the vehicles had already left and the first responders were fighting fires mainly on the perimeter of town.
They were in downtown Gatlinburg almost by themselves.
“It was like being in a big bowl surrounded by fire,” Herrington said. “The fire was like a big dragon out there and you knew it was coming.”
“Using a chainsaw is a game of leverage,” said Herrington. “If you saw improperly, it will pinch the saw and it will get locked in the tree.”
The two rangers were skilled enough to get neither saw pinched that night. Good thing. They had no replacements.
They don’t remember how many trees they dealt with along the Spur. They said they each went through three tanks of gas in their chainsaws. Most of the work amounted to cutting off branches and clearing out the tops of trees that had fallen partially on the road. Williamson said drivers might have been able to drive through most of them, “but you’d probably total your car.”
“We cut the trees back only as far as we needed to to let cars get through and not an inch more,” Williamson said.
The two had on protective glasses along with their other gear, but the glasses could not keep the grit out. Herrington said Williamson’s right eye was a bright red and he was nearly blinded.
After they cut the big pine, they realized that another big tree was blocking traffic on the Gatlinburg side of the Spur and went over to cut it away. They had to go back up the Spur toward Gatlinburg to cut another tree that had fallen since their arrival. Each tree took precious time, but they kept at it.
The night went on like that, dashing from place to place.
“Everything was changing so rapidly – so much confusion – it was really hard to tell everybody anything except to leave,” Williamson said.
“Some would ask if we could go check on a family member, and it was tough to tell them we had to stay here to keep the road clear,” Herrington said.
At one point, Herrington went back to get the truck, which was now surrounded by fire, and brought it to where they were working. The two took a short break from the gagging ash to go inside the truck, put on the interior circulation and breathe.
Herrington said his must vivid memory was a wind so strong that he at one time had to grab Williamson from behind and lean back to prevent him from being blown into the tree he was cutting.
They sawed for hours, until 1 or 2 a.m, one felled tree after another, most of them aflame.
“I wasn’t too worried about the trees on fire on the ground,” Williamson said. “It’s the ones that could fall next that I was worried about.”
Wife, child trapped
Herrington has a blog. He later posted this entry concerning that night.
“My phone started blowing up and I got the following email from my neighbor on the other side of the mountain about a fire a mile from my cabin:
“’Emergency! Please call 911 … there is a fire across the lake and it has burned out all of our phone lines. I tried 911, but lines were burning and I’m not sure emergency went out. Please call!’
Herrington knew that his house, with wife and child inside, wouldn’t stand a chance should the fire come up from below it.
He frantically called a dispatcher in Graham County, N.C., and demanded someone go up there to get his family out.
“I told Ryan that if I didn’t hear from someone I was going to steal the truck and get over there,” Herrington said.
“Mentally, he had a lot to overcome,” Williamson said.
Should he stay and continue clearing the Spur or go home and try to save his family?
It was the "worst half-hour of the night," Herrington said, before he got the word that his family had been evacuated.
Rain finally came after midnight. The two remember still sawing as the drops fell.
They were finally able to turn off their saws and get to Pigeon Forge for some rest after each had been up for more than 20 hours. Williamson said he spent a long time in the shower cleaning out his eye.
After five hours sleep, they were both back out the next morning with the chainsaws, cutting trees near headquarters and up to Newfound Gap.
Honors and accolades
Williamson and Herrington were honored by the Tennessee Chapter of the Wildlife Society with newly established Tennessee Conservation Hero awards recently.
“The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is fortunate to have these dedicated professionals committed to serving the people through the National Park Service,” said the chapter’s Billy Minser.
Park Superintendent Cassius Cash, in a note to the Wildlife Society, wrote: “Williamson and Herrington’s actions were instrumental in the evacuation of hundreds of people on that dreadful, historic night. We are honored to have such dedicated, experienced and courageous employees working for us and serving the American public. They are true heroes and very deserving of receiving accolades for their actions on November 28.”
The Park Service said that in addition to Williamson and Herrington, 10 employees were working on the Spur that night to direct traffic, help stranded motorists and remove trees and other obstacles from the roadways. Many other first responders helped as well.
Williamson and Herrington said they were happy to be able to serve the community and were just doing the job for which they had been trained.
“Right place. Right time. Right skill set,” Williamson said. “We were just two people doing the chainsaw work.”
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