Mark Burger didn’t see the deadly wildfire coming.
What he did see just after 8 p.m. on Nov. 28 was his siamese cat, Tiger, acting strangely, Burger told the Knoxville News Sentinel.
Normally calm, Tiger appeared to be trying to get his owner’s attention as he stared at the windows, paced in front of the door and rushed back and forth between the door and his owner.
“I figured I might as well take out the trash and take a look to see if an animal like a raccoon might be making Tiger nervous,” Burger told the newspaper. “When I got across the lot, I could see the flames all over the mountains across from my condo.”
Burger, 60, knew there were wildfires near Gatlinburg, where he lives. But until he stepped outside, he had no idea flames were bearing down on his mountainside home.
“I never did get the evacuation alert, and [that night] the fire seemed far enough away from downtown and the condos on hillsides nearby that I thought it was likely it would be contained before it threatened the city,” Burger told the News Sentinel.
Officials at every level are still trying to determine why evacuation orders did not reach many Gatlinburg residents until after fires swept through the town, the News Sentinel reported.
John Mathews, director of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency, told reporters Friday that an evacuation alert was sent to mobile devices. But at the same news conference, officials acknowledged that those alerts did not reach vulnerable residents, the News Sentinel reported.
“If people did not receive the message we sent out, of course we are unsatisfied with it,” Mathews said.
The evacuation alert was also broadcast on local TV and radio, but not until 9:04 p.m., the paper reported, citing Tennessee Emergency Management Agency records.
Authorities have confirmed that at least 14 people died in the fast-moving fire that tore through Gatlinburg and the surrounding area. The town of about 4,000 people, 43 miles south of Knoxville, is surrounded on three sides by Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Park officials said the fire coincided with freakishly strong winds and was clearly “human caused.” Authorities estimate more than 1,600 structures were damaged or destroyed by the fires and at least 134 people were injured.
Burger believes that if not for his cat, he might have been among those injured or killed.
After spotting the fire, he ran back inside his condo and packed a small bag that included his heart medicine and jumped in his car with Tiger, he told the News Sentinel. It would take the pair four hours to get off the mountain and into Gatlinburg, the popular tourist town where Burger owns a gift shop.
In the end, he was one of the lucky ones. Not only was he safe, but his store and condo survived the inferno as well, the News Sentinel reported.
Tiger’s story is the latest account of an animal seeming to portend a natural disaster before it occurs or act as a warning signal. Researchers remain skeptical, however, arguing that predictive behavior in animals is probably explained by animals being more reactive to signals they associate with danger.
“I think these animals are more attuned to their environment than we give them credit for,” Michelle Heupel, a scientist at the Mote Marine Laboratory, once told PBS. “When things change, they may not understand why it’s happening, but the change itself may trigger some instinct to move to an area that is safer for them.”
Tales of intuitive animals fleeing ahead of time were abundant in the days after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which left more than 200,000 people dead across coastal regions of Southeast Asia. But researchers told PBS there were simple explanations for their lifesaving behavior.
“As far as running inland to get away from a tsunami, I think an antelope, flamingo, or any other fast animal would probably do so because that’s where the forests are,” said Whit Gibbons, an ecologist at the University of Georgia. “Feeling a trembling Earth, even if minutes before we would feel it, would not give much guidance to a running or flying animal other than a response to seek safety.”
He added: “The woods are the safest place for most animals, so when they flee from a shoreline they go inland, which means not only woods but higher ground. Completely natural and not at all mystical.”
Burger didn’t ascribe any magical superpowers to his cat. But he did tell the News Sentinel he was happy his son, Tanner, rescued Tiger as an abandoned kitten and gave him to his father as a gift.
“He’s a pretty great cat,” Burger told the paper. But despite the feline’s heroics, he added, he didn’t reward Tiger with a toy. “He doesn’t really care about toys. He never gets bored because he’s so curious about everything around him.”