Michael Luciano didn’t think twice about the lingering smoke near his house in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the other night. Wildfires had been burning in the surrounding Great Smoky Mountains for five days, and the sight of smoke was nothing new.
It wasn’t until he noticed a “disturbing” detail that he decided to investigate further.
“When I went outside, I looked up and noticed a hot ember that was real small,” Luciano, 37, told The Huffington Post. “And it trickled down toward me.”
He and his stepbrother Anthony Fulton jumped on their all-terrain vehicles and drove around the neighborhood to assess the situation.
”We realized everything was engulfed in flames,” Luciano said of Chalet Village, the area in Gatlinburg where he’s lived for nearly 10 years.
He would later find out he was in the middle of one of Tennessee’s most devastating wildfires in recent history. As of Tuesday afternoon, the fire had destroyed more than 150 structures in Sevier County and caused 12 people to seek hospital treatment.
Authorities declared mandatory evacuations in Gatlinburg and neighboring Pigeon Forge on Tuesday, although Luciano argues the people living in Chalet Village should have been warned sooner about the threat of the wildfire.
On Monday at about 10:30 p.m., Fulton, Luciano and his dog Red piled into their Dodge Ram truck to escape the inferno.
Fulton drove the truck over burning logs, fallen trees and downed power lines as Luciano captured the fiery scene on video. The video was posted on Luciano’s Facebook page and has been viewed more than 4 million times.
“It felt like being in the movie ‘Volcano,’” Luciano said. “There were people behind me who were trapped... There was no way those cars could have made it.”
Luciano described “very hot” temperatures as their truck struggled to escape the blaze in time. He said he could barely breathe as smoke filled the vehicle. Luciano tried to keep Red calm as she panted heavily and her eyes teared up.
“There were propane tanks on every cabin literally blowing up as we drove,” he said.
The three eventually got to safety and are in good health now, but Luciano is uncertain of the future. He worries about how his business, Aqua Flows Spas and Repairs, will fare. For the time being, he’s staying with a family member in nearby Sevierville, Tennessee. He isn’t sure what happened to his house after he left, but he suspects the worst.
”If I wouldn’t have noticed that ember and decided to go and investigate with my stepbrother, who knows?” Luciano said. “This is just devastating to all of us.”