Cross untouched by flames brings hope to wildfire survivor

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Dale Heiser survived the wildfires of 2016. Part of that continued survival involves clinging to an old, rugged cross that for him represents hope. He said it's more than its looks, but rather a pillar of his faith.

"It's rugged looking, but it's good looking," he said. "That's the way we think about it, and that's the way we're always going to think about it."

The cross has sentimental value—Heiser said a pine tree cut down about 10 years ago led to its creation.

"I told the guy to leave me about six feet of stump so I could carve something out of it," he said.

But more than a symbol of faith, it became a reminder that Heiser and his wife are alive after wildfires swept through his community, taking buildings and lives. The cross was the only item left standing, surrounded by all that fell to the flames.

"The wind just blew from this direction, fireballs came up across here, and at that time, there was just no stopping it," he said.

The date November 28, 2016, was burned into Dale Heiser's memory.

"I told my wife, 'We need to go,'" he said. "We had no time to get anything. What we was wearing was all we took out of there."

That night, the firestorm chased him and his wife from their home.

"You see everything on both sides burning, you don't know where the end is going to be. We prayed the whole way down," he said.

Heiser said he and his wife were lucky to get to safety. It took them 30 minutes to escape the flames.

"When we left the driveway, every house was on fire all the way down," he said.

Thirty minutes was all it took to burn down a lifetime of memories.

...But that was last year.

This year, Dale Heiser made his way back to where his home once stood. Instead of focusing on the log cabin that is no longer there, he sees the one thing that is: a charred stump lifting up a wooden cross that was left alone by the flames.

"When that fire come up this hill, it burnt everything around that stump," Heiser said. "The fire went out when it got to the base of that cross, and God had to have a hand in that."

Heiser said he and his wife thought about leaving, without anything to pack up, and heading out of town to start over. But—

"God left that stump standing there with that cross on it. What does that tell you? Touches your heart," he said.

So the Heisers decided to stay, starting over in the mountains and rebuilding with a reminder of November 28, 2016, in their front yard; a reminder to cling to that old rugged cross. In that clinging grip, the Heisers have found hope.

"It'll stay. It's going to stay with us wherever we're at, and we're going to stay here," he said.