Fleeing the flames on foot: At age 82, the Hullanders outran the Great Smoky Mountains firestorm

By Bill Brewer

Rains have finally fallen on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offering much-needed relief to an area parched from months of drought and now scarred from the perfect firestorm.

But the rainfall was a day late and several inches short for scores of victims of the fires, including Robert and Daryl Hullander, members of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg, who lost their home, all its belongings, two automobiles, rare antiques, and a lifetime full of mementos and keepsakes.

The Hullanders, like thousands of other Sevier County residents and tourists, are thankful to be alive.

The Sevier County parishes of St. Mary and Holy Cross in Pigeon Forge have parishioners who lost everything, including employment; some just have the clothes they were wearing when the firestorm erupted Nov. 28.

That is when the Hullanders, 82-year-old Gatlinburg residents, found themselves on a mountainside in the dark, on foot, trying to outrun windswept flames.

Mr. Hullander and his wife, like so many others in the wooded areas surrounding Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, were going about normal daily activities on that fateful Monday.

The couple had been to nearby Pigeon Forge shopping during the day on Nov. 28. When they returned to their home, which sits one mile above the city of Gatlinburg, behind Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, they noticed smoke from fires that had been burning for weeks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was much heavier than before. The residential area where their 7,000-square-foot house stood is accessible by Campbell Lead Road, Greystone Heights Road, and Smoky View Road.

“As it was getting twilight, my neighbors said they saw flickers atop the ridgeline above our homes. A few minutes later, a house nearby, about two-tenths of a mile from us, basically exploded in flames,” Mr. Hullander said. “I told Daryl that we have to leave now.”

As the Hullanders fled in their car down Greystone Heights Road toward Gatlinburg, they encountered a large, burning tree that had fallen across the road. They turned around to take another route out of the area, but it also was blocked by fire.

So they returned home to figure out their next option for escape.

“I told Daryl that we must go by foot down the mountain behind our house. It was pitch dark, and the mountain was steep. You couldn’t walk it without holding on to limbs, going tree by tree,” he recalled.

After traversing about 300 yards, feeling their way down the slope, they ran into another wall of fire.

“We couldn’t go back, because the fire had spread behind us. So we just held our breaths and ran through the flames and smoke and got to a place where the fire wasn’t as intense. We found a path where there were no flames on the lower side of the mountain. There still were flames on the upper side. We kept going until we reached the aquarium parking lot. Then a man stopped and gave us a ride out of Gatlinburg, which was being evacuated,” Mr. Hullander said. “It was bumper to bumper, and the fires were spreading to the road.”

The Hullanders made it to an emergency shelter for fire victims, where they were able to contact their children, a son who lives in Sevier County and a daughter who lives in Knoxville. Their son picked them up. Neither was seriously injured in the escape, though they sustained scratches and cuts.

“I was finally able to reach my son and daughter and tell them we were alive,” Mr. Hullander said.

“We hoped the fire bypassed our house, but it didn’t. Our house burned to the ground. The flames were so hot that they melted the steel beams inside our home.”

The fire also destroyed their two automobiles, melting the metal wheels and the engine blocks. A fireproof safe in the house became so hot that important documents the Hullanders kept locked away were reduced to ashes.

While lamenting the loss of their home and belongings, the Hullanders feel blessed and are thankful to God that they weren’t killed. They are sad for others who lost family members and friends in the worst fire to hit Tennessee in more than 100 years.

The Hullanders returned to their property on Dec. 2, overwhelmed that what had been a three-story home with four chimneys was now ashes, twisted metal, and bare fireplaces. Until recently, the Hullanders had operated a bed-and- breakfast out of the home. A home next door was untouched, the only one around them that didn’t burn to the ground.

“We went to see what was salvageable, but there was nothing.

Everything is gone,” Mr. Hullander said. The couple does not plan to rebuild their home, according to their daughter, Terese Hullander.

The Hullanders look back at that horrific day and are putting everything into perspective.

“We are grateful we are alive. We lost everything but the work clothes we were wearing,” Mr. Hullander said. “We were never really scared until we reached the shelter, which is when we realized we could have been killed. We just were determined to keep going, step by step, tree by tree. We just kept looking for ground we could walk down.”

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