Matthew Layton was 20 minutes from home in Sevierville, Tennessee, on a cold November night in 2016 when he got a frantic cell phone call from his mother. “The mountain’s on fire,” she screamed, “and Brian’s up there!”
Layton’s family owned a dozen rental cabins on Shields Mountain, and Layton’s friend and fellow rental-cabin owner, Brian McGee, age 56, was apparently up there trying to put the fire out by himself. Layton, 32, hit the gas. He lived on the mountain too.
He made it as far as the main road to the cabins, only to find a cop blocking all traffic. Layton turned around and headed for a dirt-and-gravel back road. He made it about halfway up the steep, winding, heavily rutted path before his front-wheel-drive car gave up. He called McGee, who drove down in his pickup so they could fight the blaze together.
They headed first to Layton’s cluster of rental cabins. “I wanted to make sure our guests were gone. They were,” says Layton. At that point, he had a choice: try to save his cabins or rescue people renting other cabins nearby. “On the mountain, you don’t have many locals. They’re mostly tourists who don’t know their way around,” he says.
Over the next two hours, the two friends traversed the smoky mountain, knocking on doors and leading panicked people to safety. Layton would hop into the driver’s seat of a tourist’s car and drive the family down the mountain on roads shrouded in smoke and virtually impassable. “I know that mountain so well,” Layton says, “I could drive and know exactly where I am just by time traveled.” McGee followed him in his pickup, and when one family was a safe distance from the fire, Layton and McGee would take the pickup back up the mountain in search of another trapped person. They helped one elderly woman flee barefoot across hot gravel to reach her car, and they found a man nearly unconscious in a burning cabin. Thanks to their impromptu ferry service, the two evacuated 14 people.
One who almost didn’t make it was McGee. On the trip down the mountain with the last evacuee, the two rescuers got separated in the heavy smoke and flames. The evacuee let Layton take him and his Toyota to search for McGee. By now, the flames regularly licked the gravel road, and Layton was forced to press a soot-laden wet towel against his nose and mouth to breathe. (This is why wildfire smoke is way more dangerous than you thought.)
He found McGee near the cabin they’d just evacuated, disoriented by the smoke. McGee jumped in his pickup and followed Layton in the car. At one point, they encountered a tree lying across the road. With flames blocking him in on either side, Layton floored it. “I slammed right through that tree. Splinters and flames went flying,” says Layton. McGee did the same, and minutes later, they were off the mountain.
Fourteen people died that night in Sevier County. But the fire didn’t claim a single life on Shields Mountain. And though his home and business were destroyed, Layton remains philosophical. “I wasn’t worried about the property damage, not when I saw those families trapped on the mountain,” he says. “I knew I was gonna help them.”