Two employees of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are receiving recognition for the pivotal role they played in helping to clear a highway of downed trees that were preventing thousands of people from evacuating from Gatlinburg, Tennessee as the Chimney Tops 2 Fire burned into the city on November 28, 2016.
The truck that Ryan Williamson and Andrew Herrington were in that day was carrying two chain saws because Mr. Williamson had been taking a tree felling class that morning. One of them was his personal saw and the other belonged to the National Park Service.
After assisting to evacuate one of the administrative sites in the park, they were on a stretch of U.S. 321/441 between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg called the Spur. Below is an excerpt from an article in the Knoxville News Sentinel:
When the two rangers arrived [on the Spur] after dark that evening, a line of what they estimated held more than 1,000 vehicles was gridlocked for more than a mile and a half coming out of Gatlinburg. Treetop-high flames came nearly up to the road shoulders, the wind was howling, and the smoke was blinding.
“It looked like the end of the world,” Herrington said.
With traffic stopped and their truck at the end of the line, Herrington jumped from the passenger seat and trotted, carrying a chainsaw more than a mile to the front where a large pine had fallen and was blocking the road.
The two of them worked for hours in the very strong winds with the fire nearby, each going through three tanks of chain saw gas, to keep the highway clear as trees continued to fall into the highway.
They were recently honored by the Tennessee Chapter of the Wildlife Society with a newly established Tennessee Conservation Hero awards.
The fire killed 14 people and destroyed 2,013 homes and 53 commercial structures. It eventually burned over 17,000 acres in and outside the park.