We went home to Indiana on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and got up early Sunday morning to head home. We were so excited when we finally saw this sign.
You know how it is when you're gone for a few days... You're ready to be home and back to your routine. We loved our house and missed it.
When we got home, we found that Flash the Tennessee Elf had paid us a visit.
The kids enjoyed seeing the cats after being gone for a few days, and the boys played the PlayStation while Janae and I unpacked the van, put things away and did laundry. Typical. Haha
The next morning when we took the kids to school, we noticed that the smell of the smoke had gotten a lot worse. It looked a little smokey from the school, but nothing alarming.
We returned back home and got in the hot tub before Brett got to work. It was our daily routine of just spending a few minutes together on the deck that we loved. Every time we got in the hot tub, we would look up at the trees and one of us would say "Can you believe this is our life?" And then we would talk about all of the blessings God has given us. Every. Single. Time. We did not waste a minute loving what God had given us.
Brett got to work in what he called his office. It was really a corner of the boys' bedroom in the darkest area of the house that I referred to as The Hole. 😁 Seriously, he would never have the blinds open to know what was going on outside. I don't know how anyone can work like that!
I picked up around the house and started some more laundry. Being a rental cabin pretty much since it was built, there was only a small area for a washer and dryer, so we had one of those stacked units that you can fit about three towels in. I was forever doing laundry in that thing. It will not be missed. 😂 I had a migraine and laid down for a bit. We had a beautiful log king bed. Back in Indiana, we had a full bed our entire marriage, so we appreciated and loved this blessing as much as the hot tub!
Around noon, Brett woke me up and said I needed to come outside and look at the sky. It was an eerie shade of orange. I could not capture it completely, but you can tell by these photos that something was not quite right. By the time we went to pick up the kids from school, the smell of smoke was so thick that you could not breathe without covering your mouth.
The crazy thing is though, the view up at the school still looked perfect. You would never know that this was only about ten miles from our house.
We drove around Gatlinburg before going home, just to check things out. The smoke was getting worse, but there were still a few tourists walking around downtown. Everyone had their shirts pulled up over their faces. We talked about taking Janae to youth group in the evening, just so we could get away from the smoke. It's in Sevierville, about a half hour away, so we thought it would be better there. The wind was starting to pick up though, so we decided to wait and see how things progressed.
After we got home, the kids found that Flash had moved while they were at school. I'm so glad that I had put up all of our Christmas decorations at the beginning of November so we had time to enjoy them. I also had all of my Christmas presents bought and most of them wrapped and under the tree. I was so proud of myself for getting a head start on things this year!
It wasn't long before we got a call saying that school would be closed on Tuesday due to the smokey conditions. It was then that we decided to just stay in for the evening instead of getting out in the mess. I was following several community conversations on Facebook, and an area of Gatlinburg on the opposite end of town from us was evacuated around 7:00, I believe, to the Community Center. People in many other areas were concerned and asking if they should evacuate, but reported that they were told everything was under control when they called the police or fire department.
Our biggest concern at the time was the wind. It had picked up and we could hear branches falling. We decided we would all sleep downstairs, so Janae and I started to get our things ready. I heard a large branch fall, and looked out my bedroom window and saw that it had landed on the van. At that point I started to worry that a tree would fall across our driveway and we would be blocked in.
Brett went outside to assess the situation and orange embers were flying past him. He went to the front of the house and discovered that the entire hill behind us was glowing orange. It was on fire and we had had no warning whatsoever. This whole time we had been thinking we might be without power because of the winds. I had no idea our house might burn down.
The boys were playing the PlayStation and I told them they needed to immediately turn it off and get their shoes on. They obeyed immediately. That rarely happens! They knew it was important. Janae helped me to throw some clothes in a bag for all of them and the kids grabbed their blankets and pillows. We got the cats loaded up into their carriers and raced down the driveway. Had we taken Janae to church, we would have lost the cats too. That would have been so hard for the kids, so I'm so glad we made the decision not to go! We stopped at the neighbor's house at the bottom of our driveway to check on them. They said they were not leaving. We didn't feel like it was a choice for us. It was not worth the risk.
I remembered that people were being evacuated to the Community Center earlier, so we decided to go there. It was about 8:30 at this point. Traffic was terrible and moving slowly. We were headed out of town away from the fire though, so we felt safe.
We found a spot away from people at the Community Center and played games for a while. Then the kids fell asleep. I was desperately trying to get connected to Facebook to see if anyone had any information about what was going on, but I had zero connection inside the building.
We weren't at the Community Center for very long, maybe an hour, before they made us all leave and go to Rocky Top Sports Complex, which is just in front of the Community Center. They had decided to make the Community Center a base for firefighters.
Once we were at Rocky Top, we found some free cots. Unfortunately, a man from the Red Cross came and made an announcement that the cots were being saved for firefighters or injured people, and everyone had to move to the floor. The firefighters were out fighting the fires for two days, so those cots were never used that night. Children and elderly people slept on the hard gym floor that night. That about broke my heart! Obviously, we would have gotten up if someone needed a cot. That was just the first mistep of many made by the Red Cross over the next two weeks.
We found a corner of the gym where there weren't very many people and I scrolled through Facebook the entire night. I wish I hadn't done that. It was the longest night of my life. I read rumor after rumor about what was destroyed by fire. People were saying that Ober Gatlinburg was gone, that Pi Beta Phi school had burned to the ground, and that Ripley's Aquarium was on fire. Brett talked to a man who was volunteering and he said that Papa John's at the bottom of our hill was gone. I even saw a post by a woman whose son was a firefighter and he had told her that downtown was completely gone. None of this ended up being true. I have no idea why people would post things that were completely false, but it sure made for a long and stressful night for me!
Around 7:00 am, we decided to leave town and go to Kodak. We found out that most of the fires were under control, but that bodies had been found and the city would be closed for at least a few days. It is still unfathomable for me to think that 14 people died in these fires, several within miles of our house. We had no warning of the fire. That could have been us. Why God spared us, I don't know. I do know that God has a plan for our family and He is using us as a testimony for others! We are stronger in our faith than we have ever been, and we are seeing God at work daily in our lives. We are so thankful for all of you and the help you have given us. The help started the very first night at the hotel, when we got a message from Del and Becky Harshman saying they had paid for our two nights at the hotel, and it hasn't stopped yet. We feel your prayers and love, too! I am still working on thank you notes, but please know we are so grateful and could never give you the thanks you deserve! Thank you for being a part of our lives and for living this incredible journey alongside us.