By 12:25 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2016, smoke covered the bustling tourist town of Pigeon Forge at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.
The smoke, which created surreal scenes, was coming from high in the mountains from the Chimney Tops Two fire that had been burning for days. Photographers from The Knoxville News Sentinel documented the smoke, posting the photos online and on social media.
It was seemingly just the latest in a series of forest fires started by arson and fueled by drought popping up across the Southeastern United States: North Alabama, East Tennessee, Western North Carolina, North Georgia and the upland of South Carolina.
As nightfall arrived, there began to be signs of serious trouble for the populated areas on the outskirts of the park around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Social media erupted with reports of confusion and panic as hurricane force winds quickly drove fire down the mountains. People could see fire in the distance and then the next minute the woods around them were burning. For some, it was too late, there was no escape.
As the situation worsened during the evening of Nov. 28, the News Sentinel continuously updated stories online, sent vital information out in push alerts, curated social media posts and sent reporters and photojournalists to cover the front lines all through the night.
Belated warnings to evacuate largely went unheard. With fire upon them, tourists in timeshares, hotels and cabins would have to find escape routes on unfamiliar twisting rural mountain roads in the dark in the hurricane-force winds through burning forests. Some found heroes who helped guide them to safety; others somehow made it out. Not all were lucky.
By dawn, fires were still burning out of control, but people could begin to see through our coverage the extent of the damage, which would eventually be placed at over $1 billion with over 17,000 acres burned, more than 2,400 structures damaged, some 3,000 people who spent at least one night in shelters, 200 people who were treated for fire-related injuries and 14 deaths linked directly to the fire.
At dawn, fresh reporters and photographers were dispatched and Gannett’s USA Today Network – Tennessee sent in more reporters and photographers from the Tennessean in Nashville to ensure complete, around-the-clock coverage. A steady rotation would be dispatched for weeks to come. The team brought the coverage directly to readers on social media through Facebook Live, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
With local authorities overwhelmed with dealing with the crisis, the news media, and particularly the News Sentinel, became the key information source for those within and outside the area, with ongoing breaking news coverage for weeks.