Nearly one year ago, thousands of people fled Gatlinburg as wildfire raced toward town. For many people, especially thousands of tourists, the unfamiliar roads made a swift escape impossible.
Some were trapped, and spent the night surrounded by burning trees. More than a dozen people never made it out.
Michael Plattner brought his family from Kissimee, Florida, for a fall vacation. They were staying in a rental cabin on Nov. 28, the night of the fires.
“It was immediate panic, everybody panicked,” he said.
He said they weren’t warned of the evacuations until he called 911. As they tried to leave, they got lost in the smoke and darkness.
“You would hope to see some kind of exit, a big rock sign, anything,” he said. “We saw nothing. It was just night and fire. All you could see was red and orange. That’s it.”
“At one point, (I lost) the road to the fire and panic,” he said. “You wonder if you’re going to get your family out, while they’re sitting in the back crying.”
Though they made it out safely, it’s an experience he still can’t forget.
One year later, experiences like Plattner’s are a lesson learned for Sevier County, according to interim Emergency Management Agency director Joe Ayers.
“There are numerous roads here,” he said while driving through Chalet Village with 10News reporter Michael Crowe. “If you’re not familiar with the main roadways you can become confused very easily.”
“There’s a potential for a wrong turn here in an emergency,” Crowe said.
“If you were to turn onto one of these side roads, yes,” Ayers responded.
As Sevier County rebuilds today, officials have said they’re considering new ways to guide people out of maze-like neighborhoods in an emergency.
“We’re wanting to make it easier for the community and tourists to be able to make an informed decision of their options to exit the community,” Ayers said.
As part of that effort, the county is exploring new reflective signs to guide people away from dead ends, and down the mountain. But officials are avoiding the term "evacuation routes."
“It’s a lot different from being at the ocean, when they have evacuation routes,” Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said. “You have a hurricane coming from one direction and the folks have to go in another direction. Here you don’t know what that emergency might be – it might be a fire, it might be a tornado, it might be a flood. You can’t have an emergency evacuation route. Because if it’s a fire, there might be trees down. There are other factors there in the mountains.”
Waters said they can’t give people one clear way out, but hope to provide better options, including more visible signage.
“That night it was very smoky, so we’re looking at signage that has some reflective qualities to it,” Waters said. “(It will be) more visible in that kind of atmosphere. And we’re trying to get people down to the main roads by utilizing that.”
So far, such signs are just an idea. A committee is reviewing local emergency plans and preparedness, and has hired an outside consulting firm. Waters and Ayers were unable to give an approximate price for the signs or say where they would be installed.
The committee is also considering emergency education pamphlets for rental cabins, but has not produced any yet.
Sevier County and Gatlinburg are also working to address the notification issue. New early warning sirens were installed in downtown Gatlinburg this summer, and additional units are coming to Chalet Village in the next few months, with more expansion to come.
The county also has a pending application to directly access the IPAWS system, which can notify anyone in the area on their phones. Officials also request those living in the area sign up for CodeRED alerts.
MORE: Sign up for CodeRED
With these devices and techniques, they hope to reach people sooner.
“Something, anything, anything would be a big improvement,” said Plattner. “Because there was nothing. There was nothing.”
He said even 10 minutes more warning would have helped increase their chances of escape.
“It was definitely a moment where a left or right turn could have been the reason we weren’t here today, you know,” he said.
Even with the new safety measures planned, Plattner said his family’s sense of security is still shattered.
“All I can think about now is vacations at the beach,” he said. “That’s where I’d rather take them.”