Travis Barth saw the beginnings of smoke billowing from the mountains in his rearview mirror as he headed home from Gatlinburg, Tenn., to Georgia on Sunday morning.
“It looked like a volcano just erupted,” Barth said.
Fires have led to widespread destruction in the town, which Barth had been visiting for the weekend. He stayed in the Gatlinburg Town Square Resort with his family.
“It's a busy town, but it's quiet at the same time. Nothing bad really happens there, so to see this devastation is terrible,” he said.
Barth had visited the town several times over the past few years, creating memories that will last forever, even as much of the town has suffered severe fire damage.
Brooke Reems was there most recently in October for a getaway with her family, but she has gone at least twice a year since she had her honeymoon there in 2012.
“I think the world of that town,” Reems said. “We literally think of it as our second home.”
The Oakwood woman and mother of two spent her last days in the town going to the Hatfield and McCoy dinner show with her family.
She also took her 3-year-old son horseback riding for the first time on that trip.
“My heart literally hurts. Not only the memories, the beauty of the town and mountains, and everything I love about the place itself,” Reems said.
She said her heart also hurt for the people who lost their homes and businesses, the emergency personnel putting their lives in danger to save what is left and even the animals that have died or been affected by the fires.
“It's tragic,” Reems said. “Many tragedies have happened to the country in my adult life, but nothing has personally affected me like this one.”
She first saw the news when she was on Facebook.
“I prayed it was not true, until I saw it for the third time in less than an hour, and finally looked into it,” she said.
Monica Leonard had her wedding in Gatlinburg back in August 2002.
“We just really love it there and try to go every chance we get,” she said.
The chapel she chose, Chapel at the Park, was less than a mile away from another wedding venue, Cupid’s Chapel, that was completely destroyed in the fires. She chose it because of the beautiful location, and she was sad to hear the area had burned.
Leonard saw the news of Gatlinburg online.
“I couldn't even believe it. Such devastation,” she said. “I was immediately concerned for the people that live there and make a living from the tourism industry. I can't even imagine how the people there feel. It’s extremely sad.”