They fled their home with just their pets and some clothes. Then strangers stepped in.
Driving back to her apartment in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, last Monday afternoon, Rachel Gilliam weaved her way through smoke so thick she couldn’t make out the mountains south of town.
“Everything had this brown and yellow haze to it, like there was a sepia filter over the world,” Gilliam says.
When she arrived home, she called local police and emergency services, who told her that no evacuations were planned. Gilliam’s wife, Jess, who had just finished her shift at the distillery where they both work, wasn’t willing to wait for an update:
“We need to go,” Jess said.
Gilliam grabbed the couple’s dog, their two cats, some clothes, and a bag containing their birth certificates and marriage license and fled north to Jess’ parents in Knoxville, where they watched the next part of the story unfold on television and through panicked calls and text messages from friends.
Wildfires blew into town, killing at least 14, injuring dozens, and destroying hundreds of homes, including the apartment complex where the couple had just moved two months prior.
“It was like a bad dream. It was completely heart-wrenching,” Gilliam says.
Just a few miles away in Knoxville, Lacy Mellon and her husband Jonathan were following the same news reports with growing alarm.
A Tennessee native and real estate agent, Mellon regularly rents out two spare bedrooms in her home, and a bungalow listed on Airbnb as, “good for couples, solo adventurers, business travelers, families (w/ kids), big groups, & furry friends (pets)!”
With no guests on the horizon, she saw a better use for the empty space.
“This is my home and these are my people,” Mellon says. Hoping to provide some relief to residents displaced by the fires, she sought out a friend who works at Sugarlands Distillery, the same Gatlinburg distillery that employs Rachel Gilliam and her wife.
“I immediately texted her and asked if she knew anyone directly needing housing and told her about our open home,” Mellon explains. The friend referred her to Gilliam, who moved into Mellon’s bungalow with her pets soon after.
“I have no words to describe how amazing it felt to have a safe place to live and for the animals to be at no charge,” Gilliam says.
In the wake of the Gatlinburg fires, Airbnb has made it easier for its Tennessee hosts to offer their properties to evacuees free of charge.
According to a statement from the company’s head of global disaster relief, the Disaster Response Tool will be available to hosts in the Knoxville and Gatlinburg areas through Dec. 13. Airbnb activated the function after Hurricane Matthew slammed the southeastern United States in October.
A review of the site on Monday morning showed dozens of listings available to evacuees in Knoxville, and several more in the surrounding areas.
“I want her to know she has people in Knoxville now, and we are here for whatever she needs.” Lacy Mellon
Amanda Lane, a nursing student at University of Tennessee, saw donating her space as an alternative to giving money or purchasing other needed items for evacuees, which she can’t afford.
“I personally feel like I’ve lost part of my ‘home,’ but I can’t imagine actually losing my house as well,” Lane, who grew up camping and hiking near Gatlinburg, says. “I am devastated watching the news, seeing all of the damage, and I really just wanted to be able to help out in anyway that I can.”
Others, like Liz Candlish, who operates the Glenwood Inn in Knoxville with her husband J.R., praised the company for making it easy to assist with relief efforts. “I really feel for all the people who lost everything in the fires and since we have the space, would love to offer it to help out,” she explains. “We can’t imagine what it would be like to have our house burn down, especially right before Christmas.”
This is just one of many ways locals are coming together to provide relief to evacuees from the fires.
Other Knoxville businesses have been active in assisting the recovery effort, including local food truck Oishii Knox, which has been giving away free meals to first responders and Liberty Ink Tattoo, which created a special design, with all proceeds going to the Gatlinburg Relief Fund.
Last week, singer Dolly Parton, whose Dollywood amusement park sits right outside Gatlinburg, announced a fund to provide residents who lost their homes, like Gilliam, $1,000 per month for six months to help them re-establish themselves.
Mellon, who manages a Facebook group for Airbnb hosts in the local area, praised the Knoxville community for rallying to support their neighbors.
For her part, she said she plans to take Gilliam out for dinner and host her until she gets back on her feet.
“I want her to know she has people in Knoxville now, and we are here for whatever she needs.”
Gilliam said she’s enormously grateful to Mellon for putting her and Jess up and to Sugarlands Distillery for its support.
According to Gilliam, the company has pledged to help her and Jess find permanent housing in Gatlinburg. The couple is committed to returning, and Gilliam hopes that visitors will continue seek the city out as she and Jess did many times early in their relationship, before they lived there despite the tragedy.
From time to time, Gilliam regrets what was lost in the fire her grandfather’s handkerchiefs, a collection of Disney and Star Wars memorabilia, and hundreds of movies. Still, she’s thankful for what wasn’t.
“Things are just things, but we are safe, and that’s what matters.”