Pro angler Tim Malone lost his home and almost everything he owned in the Tennessee wildfires, but he might have lost more had it not been for an evacuating motorist blaring his car horn.
Malone was among those who rushed out of their homes when high winds whipped fires through Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The fires are blamed in 13 deaths, and the number of buildings damaged is up to 1,000, including Malone’s home that burned to the foundation.
“I guess it reminds you of what’s important,” the FLW Tour and Bassmaster Opens pro said. “I got my family out safe. It kind of stinks to lose everything, but we’ll survive it.”
Monday, Nov. 28, was an ominous day in the region as smoke from a number of small fires had the community on high alert. A weather system forecast to dump rain was hoped to help alleviate the threat, but the outflowing wind exacerbated it.
“It was the perfect storm,” Malone said. “The mixture of the fire, the high winds, the extreme drought, it was almost inevitable.”
Malone got home around 7 p.m. and ate dinner. He and wife, Melissa, who works for the National Park Service, knew a forest fire was as close as 5 miles away, so they planned to stay up all night monitoring the situation.
“At 7:30, a car comes past my house just laying on the horn,” Malone said. “I open my door and the whole mountainside above my house is on fire. It was probably 50, 60 yards from my house. Too close. I turn around, ‘Get your stuff! We got to go!’”
In the next three minutes or so, they grabbed pictures off the walls, two laptops, some clothes and hurried to the vehicles. Melissa took their 14-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, in her car and Malone drove his rig trailering his new boat. They went down the mountain to a church, a safe spot at the time. Malone unhooked his boat and went back up to the house, thinking he could fend off the fire with a water hose.
He was spraying the side of the house closest to the flames when the situation worsened. He quickly realized his efforts were futile – it became dangerous and he needed to leave. Storm force winds created a surreal firestorm, like something out of a movie, he said.
“It was just all these big, massive balls of embers, fireballs in the sky. There were some that were jumping miles, from one mountain to the next,” he said. “There were fires everywhere. Every direction you looked, there were fires.
“One would hit a house, and it was like the house was covered in gasoline. Instantly, the whole house would burst into flames. You’d hear a big explosion, maybe blowing the windows out, propane bottles … It’d hit the next house and do the same thing.”