True Volunteers: Stories of heroism and generosity from the wildfires
It's been two years since the Sevier County wildfires. If there's one thing we learned, it's that the Volunteer Spirit is indomitable in the face of overwhelming tragedy -- and we have dozens of stories to prove it.
Author: Tom Barclay
Published: 4:57 PM EST November 27, 2017
Updated: 9:47 AM EST November 28, 2018
WILDFIRE 3 Articles

No amount of time can truly heal all the wounds left by a great tragedy like the Sevier County wildfires, as much as we'd like it to just go away. There is hope in spite of this pain, though, and we've seen it blossom from the night of the fires.

That hope is in the hundreds of named and unnamed heroes who risked their lives to rescue others. It's in the thousands of volunteers from across the world who gave what they could in the greatest times of need and beyond. It's in the tales of recovery and rebuilding within just the first year.

The response people showed during and after the wildfires proved the "Volunteer State" is not just a name, it's within the spirit of people here and across the world. We dug through hundreds of stories in hopes of proving this, and we were not disappointed to find more stories than we can possibly highlight here.

From heroes who risked their lives to help others, to hometown celebrities who've given so much more than just money, to simple stories of hope and joy from people who lost everything: We believe these stories deserve your attention once more, even if it's only as a reminder of how much good happened since then. Simply click on the story title to relive these many inspiring and wonderful moments of generosity.


True Volunteers: Stories of heroism and generosity from the wildfires

Chapter 1

Heroes From All Over

Watch: Hugs & tears when Dolly surprises wildfire victims with extra money:

"The final disbursement from Dolly's "My People Fund" had recipients expecting their last $1,000 check. Instead, Dolly showed up to hand them a check for $5,000 personally instead."

Former police officer steps in to rescue people, donates goods after fires:

"On a terrifying night for many, Luke Walker was on a mission to save lives."

Ohio couple searches for man who helped save them from wildfire:

"They made their way to a convenience store's parking lot and desperately tried to call 911, but couldn't get through. That's when a man drove up and his car was smoking."

Sevierville men leave burning homes to save 17 residents from flames:

"Residents on Shields Mountain are thanking two Sevierville men for leaving their burning cabins to save their lives."

Miracle rescue: First responders recall couple saved from elevator during Gatlinburg wildfire:

"For the first time, the dispatcher and firefighter who came to the Alabama couple's rescue talk about the desperate attempts to get them to safety."

Pro wrestler, taxi driver saves lives during fires with free rides:

"Vinnie Vineyard owns a local cab company called Funk Master V’s Uptown Cabs. When he saw the video, he took action. He got into one of his taxis and headed toward Gatlinburg."

Charles the Pig helping family raise money:

"After miraculously surviving the wildfire, Charles the pig is helping raise money for his family and his own medical bills through t-shirts and prints with his likeness."

Chapter 2

The Generosity of Friends and Strangers

Free vehicles given to Sevier Co. wildfire victims:

"Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministries gives away vehicles to victims who lost their cars to the Sevier County wildfires."

Blount Co. nonprofit helping house wildfire victims:

"A nonprofit opened its doors to help house victims of the Sevier County wildfires that had fallen through the cracks of other aid programs."

Volunteers help Gatlinburg native find family tools in ash:

"As Ernest Ogle walks around what's left of his family home on Ellis Ogle Drive in Gatlinburg, he holds a few treasures tight in his left hand. To the average person, the items may look like a few rusty old hammer heads but to Ogle, they are family heirlooms."

In spite of loss from fires, businesses give to others:

"Despite losing all or much of what they own in last week’s fires, many people in Sevier County are still taking the time to help others in need."

Indiana sisters raffle their Hatchimals to help Gatlinburg fire victims:

"The toys are a popular item this Christmas and sold out in stores. However, the 6-year-old and 10-year-old sisters couldn't bear to keep the toys after they saw the wildfire devastation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee."

Musician Zac Brown among those lending a hand after Gatlinburg disaster:

"In times of crisis, it helps sometimes to know famous people. It's even better if you know a famous person who likes to get things done quickly and efficiently."

Showering blessings to wildfire victims:

"A Greenback church is helping wildfire victims by donating goods."

Volunteer team of veterans in Gatlinburg to help families rebuild:

"Members of Team Rubicon, like Andrew Hanna, an Army veteran, have been in Gatlinburg since Monday getting ready to head out on their various missions."

Coach Phillip Fulmer donates Vols gear to wildfire evacuees:

"The family of legendary University of Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer brought several cars worth of the coach's sideline gear to give to those in the shelter at the Rocky Top Sports World."

Smokies Strong telethon raises $270,000 to assist disaster relief:

"WBIR and WTNZ FOX 43 joined with WATE and WVLT to raise money for Sevier County wildfire relief through a telethon with the American Red Cross of East Tennessee."

Pitching in: Thousands of Knox County kids step up to help fire victims:

"In large and small amounts, students are making a difference. For example, one Blue Grass Elementary School student brought in $300 of his own money to help, according to Knox County Schools."

Josh Dobbs makes surprise visit to wildfire shelter:

"For survivors of the Gatlinburg fires who've been waiting for word on their homes in area shelters, it's been a long and devastating week. But they got a reason to smile on Wednesday morning."

Out of state couple delivers Christmas joy to Gatlinburg:

"A Virginia couple brought more than 1,000 stuffed animals to Gatlinburg to bring gifts to wildfire victims. "

Food City donates $750,000 to wildfire recovery:

The organization presented a $500,000 check to the Gatlinburg Relief Fund and $250,000 to the Dollywood Foundation My People Fund.

Wildfire survivor returns to volunteer in Gatlinburg:

"For one Alabama man, the last time he visited the mountains they were on fire and he was racing for his life. Now he's back to help a family rebuild."

Volunteers construct walls to help rebuild Gatlinburg homes:

"The Mountain Tough Recovery Team broke ground on the first of 25 new homes being built in Gatlinburg following the November fires. On Saturday, volunteers from across East Tennessee spent hours building walls for those homes in the first-ever community build."

Pay If Forward: Wildfire relief volunteers:

"Two months after the devastating and deadly Sevier County wildfires, the volunteer effort has not stopped."

College students use spring break to help wildfire victims:

"A group of 11 international students from Miami University in Middletown, Ohio, drove more than 300 miles to Gatlinburg to spend the week rebuilding a home. When they first heard of the wildfires, they knew they wanted to help."

Volunteer saves heartfelt letters from wildfire distribution center:

"They range from humorous to sincere, but Morrison said each card shows innocence, faith, and love from children across the country."

Texas man collects Bibles for Tenn. wildfire victims:

"He knew there was a great need, and the first focus for wildfire victims would be on food and shelter, not possessions. But some possessions are very important."

Bluegrass concert benefits wildfire victims:

"The Smokies Strong bluegrass celebration is raising money for the Dollywood Foundation Wildfire Scholarship Fund."

Chapter 3

Rebuilding Stronger Than Ever

Wildfire victims rebuild collection of treasured photos:

"Dozens of displaced wildfire victims are replenishing their collection of family photos, thanks to a group of Sevier County volunteers."

Roaring Fork Baptist Church nears end of summer rebuild:

"More than 2,000 volunteers from a group called "Builders for Christ" spent the last three months helping rebuild Roaring Fork Baptist."

Gatlinburg's Alamo Steakhouse reopens after rising from the ashes:

"Many people were already planning a road trip to enjoy some awesome steak and service in the new building. 95 percent of the original staff from before the fire is back at work serving once again."

Gatlinburg musician receives gift after losing 52 guitars to wildfire:

"Ben Stroupe knows better than many how deeply music can heal. When he is not serving up a meal, he is rocking out at the Crystelle Creek Restaurant and Grill in Gatlinburg on Monday and Tuesday nights."

Photographer captures strength in 'Voices of Gatlinburg':

"Cowart is confident the people in his photos and in Gatlinburg will recover and move forward."

Recovered flag a symbol of hope among the ashes:

"She came across a photo that showed soldiers around a tattered American flag flying proudly on a flagpole, with everything else around it burned to ashes. But she recognized the view and observation deck and realized that it was Crockett Mountain Concession’s flag."

Arrowmont School rebuilding stronger thanks to community:

"From ridge to ridge, burn scars are now a binding part of the Gatlinburg community."

Wildfire survivor's new home dedicated for his 75th birthday:

"Appalachia Service Project, Mountain Tough Recovery Team and a slew of other organizations and volunteers rebuilt Ernest Ogle's Gatlinburg home and finished in time to dedicate it before his birthday."

Wildfire survivor to build tiny homes for fire victims:

"Rodney Clark is emptying his retirement savings to build tiny homes for wildfire victims."

UT professor studying financial, emotional effects of 'My People Fund':

"Many reported that community and social supports have been instrumental in helping them regain stability."

More Coverage

Smokies Strong: Special Section

What we knew then: The 1st week of wildfire coverage

Smokies Stronger: Sevier County one year later

True Volunteers: Stories of heroism and generosity from the wildfires

When disaster struck Sevier Co., Dolly and the My People Fund stepped in to help