Smokies Intern Who Lost Everything to Fire Focuses Instead on What She’s Gained

If you are home for the holidays this year, be sure to pause and consider your good fortune. 
 
“When I go to the grocery store now,” says SCA intern Katelyn Hillmeyer, “I’ll say to myself ‘hey, I can go home and make this’ before I remember I don’t have a crock pot anymore.”
 
Katelyn lost her slow cooker and virtually every other possession to the “super fire” that consumed entire neighborhoods around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The house she’d been living in and everything in it was burned to the ground. Yet, she says, she is left with something far greater.
 
In late November, as flames erupted around the Gatlinburg, TN area, Katelyn – a GIS intern charged with mapping cultural sites just three months prior – was drafted to chart hot spots in and around the park. “I’d never done anything like that before,” she notes, “but I said ‘sure, I’ll do the best I can.’” 
 
By now, most other interns and park personnel had been evacuated but Katelyn stayed on to support the incident command teams.
 
“We lost track of time, and suddenly it was 6:30 p.m. We had radios on, so we knew fire was getting closer, but all of a sudden we heard someone shouting the flames had reached the maintenance park and the fire was bearing down on headquarters. I grabbed some equipment and got in my car. I was waiting for two more people when they told me to just go.”
 
Katelyn headed home. Typically, SCA interns’ housing is located inside the park, but as there were no such quarters available, Katelyn was living in a log cabin outside park boundaries.
 
“I was driving toward Gatlinburg and the flames were coming down the hill toward the road. It was super windy and super smoky, with that orange glow all around. I woke up my neighbors, a single mom and her daughter. They didn’t realize what was going on. I grabbed my laptop, some teddy bears and my grandma’s cookbook. I saw flames on the ridgeline just above my house. Sparks were flying, limbs were starting to fall, the patio furniture was blowing around.”
 
The thing is, even amid this chaos, Katelyn didn’t think her house was at risk. “I’m from Colorado. I’m used to wildfires. My place was in an open field with a just few trees behind it. I felt no way it was in any danger. I left my camera and hard drive with all my photos (Katelyn shoots weddings and nature scenes when she’s not interning), thinking I’ll be back when this is over. It didn’t even cross my mind that my house wouldn’t be there. 
 
“I drove out with my parents on speaker-phone. There were only three ways of out of town: through the park, heading east or out to Pigeon Forge. I couldn’t go back into park because it was closed. As I was leaving, I heard on the radio that power lines were down and blocking one route, so I decided to take main road out of town. That’s when all traffic came to a complete halt. There was a tree down on the road, and another on top of a car. Emergency crews were on scene. People were run up ahead to see what was going on, and then they came running back the other way.
 
“I heard on the radio that fire blocking the road ahead, but fire was coming up behind us as well. I was kind of trapped. Suddenly traffic stated to move – a backcountry ranger in his own vehicle got through and unlocked a gate to create an exit. A law enforcement officer told us to drive. ‘Stay in the center of the road and do not stop!’ he said. We drove around the corner and there were flames everywhere. When you hear people mention the Gates of Hell, I thought this is what it must look like.
 
“Beside the road, a river of hot ash poured over red waterfalls. Downed trees were everywhere, burning and blocking the road. It was extremely terrifying. I said to my mom and dad ‘There’s a tree on fire in front of me and there are people behind me. I can’t stop.’ I told them I loved them and drove through it even as they screamed at me not to. The car behind me caught fire. The people in it jumped out and got into another car.”
 
Through the heavy, black smoke, Katelyn says she was guided by the glow of distant Christmas lights to the relative safety of Pigeon Forge. As she pulled into town, surrounded by scenes from a holiday movie, she wondered “did that really just happen?”
 
But no sooner had she caught up with her park headquarters colleagues at a downtown hotel, when one of her supervisors yelled that flames were bearing down on the structure and they had to leave immediately. As the crisis raged, Katelyn was evacuated five different times. 
 
“I found out about my house the next night. Up to that point, every time I heard about a business or a home destroyed, I marked it on a map to assess my own place’s chances. Then, going through social media, I found a YouTube video shot by some people who snuck in behind the lines. Where my house should have been there was only a big, burnt empty field.
 
“My supervisor double-checked the next day. It was gone.”
 
She was permitted to return to the location of her former home the next day. “I’m on a year’s contract. I’d moved everything I had here, hoping to get a permanent job when my internship ends. It didn’t hit me till later. It was a pretty bad feeling. It makes you feel metaphorically naked. All the things that make you ‘you,’ all the things you like to do, like to wear: gone. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
 
“I’d worked at a pottery school after college and had tons of hand-painted pottery. That’s the only recognizable thing I could find. A two-story log cabin, burned all the way down. Even my washer and dryer had melted. The fireplace apparently exploded. Christmas presents I’d ordered online and were delivered to my home that morning were turned to ashes.”
 
Within days, Katelyn’s landlord had the home’s remains bulldozed. “The shoebox in my car is what’s left of my life.”
 
It gets worse.
 
“I had insurance, however I had just graduated when I took this internship and hadn’t yet changed my policy to reflect my new living situation. I hadn’t upgraded it to reflect my new furniture and things. The total loss is three times what the insurance covered.
 
“I’ve applied for aid through the relief campaign set up by Dolly Parton. Other options haven’t worked out. Because I’m not a Park Service employee, I don’t qualify for their programs and I don’t qualify for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] because I did have insurance, even though it’s not enough. The nonprofit that supports the park has started a relief fund, and I may qualify for that, but they’re not sure if the benefits come with tax penalties, so everything is wait-and-see right now. I’m in this weird gray area. 
 
“My aunt started a GoFundMe page, but the uninsured need help a lot more than I do. They lost a lot more than I did.”
 
Katelyn is currently living with others displaced by the fire, in a home belonging to a former park employee who now works for the US Forest Service in Georgia. “I’m in this new place and sometimes it feels like I’m on a vacation and that I’ll be going home soon but then I realize no, this is no vacation.”
 
As for what’s next, Katelyn says “I still have until August at the Smokies, and possibly longer if they want to keep me. If anything, they may need me now more than ever” to map archaeological sites impacted by the fire.
 
Ironically, she’ll soon earn her “Red Card” – and interagency certification allowing her to work wildfires. “It’s part of the opportunities offered by the National Park Service. You get to do a lot of different trainings to make you more hire-able.”
 
When asked what she takes away from the experience of losing everything, Katelyn is quick to mention what she’s gained. 
 
“I feel a greater sense of community. Being far from home and not really knowing anyone, I felt…not lost, but out of place, and the support of the Gatlinburg community and the people I work with at the park, I feel part of something that wasn’t there before. I’m very thankful.”
 
Lead photo by Jeremy Cowart