Brandon Reese walked across the road toward the River Edge Motor Lodge, the bottoms of his shoes melting on the asphalt. Smoke rolled off the pool outside.
One hotel room was so warped from the heat that the door swung open with almost no effort. The thermostat inside had melted down the wall. Someone’s clothes still hung in the closet, left behind.
Reese spent the night in Gatlinburg with his partner, MegAn Johnson-Brown, documenting the Great Smoky Mountains wildfire as it tore across the beloved resort town Monday night and into Tuesday morning.
“It was like an apocalyptic wasteland,” Reese recalled, his throat still sore from inhaling smoke.
Seven people died in fires across Sevier County this week, authorities confirmed Wednesday, and early assessments indicate more than 700 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Fire officials said that number includes about 300 buildings inside the Gatlinburg city limits.
The blaze erupted as flames stoked by 90-mph winds raged through town Monday night into Tuesday morning, displacing more than 14,000 residents and consuming more than 15,000 acres.
When Reese, a freelance photographer based in Abingdon, Va., heard about the wildfire, he told his wife he had to go.
“We wanted to be first on the ground,” he said. “I told her, ‘If I’m not back by the time you get up for work, get a hold of somebody.'”
They met volunteers Billy Mullins, Josh Ferguson, Matt Kiser and their crew at the Pigeon Forge Fire Department, where Reese said over 100 volunteers showed up in just one hour.
“If it wasn’t for them and deciding to put their life on the line for a night, we wouldn’t have been able to get out there,” Reese said.
Both crews were waiting for instructions when they decided team up and try their luck alone.
Officers at the barricade tried to turn the crews away, but with two four-wheel drive pickup trucks, chainsaws, axes and other gear brought in from Mullins’ landscaping business, they made the case to pass.
“They told us to be careful and that if anything happened, we were on our own,” Reese said. “They moved the barricade and let us through.”
The group set out on the Spur — the parkway that cuts through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, connecting Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg — at one point driving through a tunnel of fire as the tree canopy on either side was engulfed in flames.
In town, the main thoroughfare was a slurry of ash and water from rain and open water lines. Houses on Ski Mountain were either burning or had been leveled by the flames. The Gatlinburg Convention Center was barricaded shut. Businesses throughout town were noticeably damaged. The Mystery Mansion was destroyed and the famous Cupid’s Chapel immolated.
Even the dirt was on fire.
The volunteer firefighter crew drove the photographers in the rain and falling ash, avoiding debris by crossing yards and what was left of people’s properties. The town was empty except for the stray police cruiser. Hundreds of fire and smoke alarms sounded out across the valley, and once in a while, a tree would explode like a grenade. The landscape was a far cry from the scenic vacations Reese has taken with his family a couple times each year.
At Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort, three or four golf carts were scattered with headlights and flashers still on near the roadway. One golf cart was completely burned.
“People couldn’t make it to their vehicles, so they just took the golf carts to get off the property,” Reese said. “When we got to the property, the café in front was already burned down to the foundation.”
They were there when crews rescued a couple trapped in an elevator at the resort. Reese said overwhelmed crews struggled to put out flames with low water pressure.
On Wednesday, door-to-door searches were still underway as rescue crews battled rockslides and mudslides to comb neighborhoods for more dead or injured people.
And park rangers warned recent rainfall would buy only a day or two of relief. A return of dry weather will bring new risks of fresh fire outbreaks.