Fire on the Mountain: What It’s Really Like to Be Caught in a Wildfire

In Cover Stories by Élan Youngleave a COMMENT

Read more coverage of the recent wildfires here.

On Monday night, like many East Tennesseans, I watched in horror as flames engulfed downtown Gatlinburg and roared toward Pigeon Forge, creating an unprecedented nightmare situation for our area. The fire that began the night before near Chimney Tops in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was stoked by heavy winds, with some gusts reaching 70-80 mph. As the wind sent limbs crashing onto my roof, I mentally willed the weatherman’s green satellite blob closer to where drenching rain was needed. I saw harrowing footage passed around on Facebook that showed residents fleeing, and I could tell that the news crews were having a difficult time reporting the scope of the situation.

My heart ached for the community just over the mountain that was now living in fear, panic, shock and desperation. There’s nothing like feeling powerless to do anything but passively watch a tragedy from afar. At the time I write this, three confirmed fatalities have been reported, but I know that the dust hasn’t fully settled yet. In the wee hours, I remembered times I’ve visited Little Greenbrier School and the Walker Sisters Place, and I considered that these and other irreplaceable historic structures in the park might only live on in memory. I thought of all the people left homeless at the beginning of winter and the hard economic times ahead for them and small business owners. Even though it was later reported that Arrowmont had only suffered partial damage to its campus, at the time news reports said it had burned to the ground, and I thought of the times I’ve been there for exhibits or classes and felt a palpable comfort surrounded by art and artists. I also considered the deep irony that the current exhibit, Piecing Together a Changing Planet, features fiber arts highlighting climate change in America’s national parks. Isn’t that at least part of what’s going on?

Thirteen days ago from the time I write this, my home community in Walland experienced a wildfire scare, but now seeing the enormity of the situation in Gatlinburg, I was able to grasp just how lucky we were. What we experienced was terrifying, but it never descended into chaos—my family’s experience in no way compares to the Level 3 State of Emergency in the next county.

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On Thursday, Nov. 17, at 1:54 p.m., I got a call from a neighbor telling me that a fire had started behind Walland Elementary, just a few miles from my home. I checked for news online and scrambled to call the fire station. “It’s just a 200 by 100 brush fire, ma’am,” a woman who answered told me. “It’s contained.” The students at Walland Elementary had been evacuated, but no structures were threatened. I breathed a sigh of relief from 40 minutes away in Knoxville and tried to focus on work.

About 20 minutes later, a neighbor who lives closer to the school called me in distress. She was breathless and said it looked bad, very bad. We talked hurriedly, so she could continue packing her car.

Soon after, pictures popped up on Facebook, and another neighbor mentioned evacuating. I studied the ominous smoke plume in various photos in my news feed and decided that even though my heart was pounding, I would not panic. I trusted what the fire department had told me: this was a small fire, and it was under control. Leaves create a lot of smoke, I said to myself.

Yet. Had I not just heard the fear in the voice of my neighbor, who was so close to the scene that she could see danger with her own eyes?

Since the election, my internal sense of safety in the world has been thrown off-kilter. The post-election news has been too much all at once, and now a direct threat to the safest place I know was causing me to lose perspective. I realized, too, that the drought has contributed to my background stress level. Without the regular release of negative ions from rain, it’s harder to simply relax. Blount County is listed as being in Extreme Drought, and no real accumulation is expected until January. The Little River is the lowest I’ve seen it, and the forests have become a tinderbox.

I decided to call the fire department again, just to be sure. This time, no answer. I called another station. No answer. After the fourth station, I finally spoke with a firefighter who explained all that he knew. Again, I was told there was no need to worry. When I mentioned what I had read on Facebook, he let out a long sigh and said that Facebook was notorious for spreading incorrect information and he encouraged me to relax. I silently noted this had been one of the problems during this election: Fake news spreading like wildfire.

I have learned that worrying unnecessarily drains the life out of me, and I craved this calm reassurance, even if it wasn’t the full truth. Was my family safe? Yes. That was the only thing I knew for certain, and it would have to do for now.

At home that evening, my husband, Jeremy—who is a former firefighter for the Townsend Area Volunteer Fire Department—remained calm in stark contrast to the smoke billowing in the sky overhead. He noted that winds were not blowing toward our house.

“Shouldn’t we pack a bag?” I implored. “Sure, if it will make you feel better,” he replied. All I wanted was a straight answer from someone: Should I plan for my personal apocalypse or plan my son’s birthday party on Saturday?

Having grown up in Texas and California where wildfires have engulfed whole communities, I had to work to keep my imagination from running wild even as I was told that the fire was contained. While I didn’t feel as threatened as I had earlier in the day, I was visibly unsettled, unable to focus or relax. The traffic was heavy on our road, which was normally quiet at night, and it was clear that people had come out to watch the mountain burn. My husband suggested I join them. It might even put my mind at ease.

I drove the half-mile to Walland Center where the crowd seemed like one waiting for Fourth of July fireworks. I talked with Ryan O’Donnell of WATE who also gave me some peace of mind from his experience covering wildfires over the years. He said to pack a bag for one or two nights just in case, but to try not worry myself sick. If we really needed to evacuate, the firefighters would be right there pounding on our door to let us know.

It was then I was able to step back to take in the view. A mountain on fire. No fireworks could compare to this. A beautiful sight, even for the fear and destruction it was causing. I had friendly conversations with locals, even dipping my toe in the water to ask opinions about climate change, which given the severity of the drought and the strangely warm weather, seemed like a legitimate conversation topic. I got shut down pretty quickly—science is mostly theory, after all, and didn’t I know that the polar caps were expanding in places? I didn’t ask for news sources.

Even when no structures or lives are threatened by wildfire, a common response is to view it as a sad event. While it’s true that fire is destructive in the short-term, it is also regenerative to forests in the long-term. By no means do I condone the actions of arsonists who selfishly put human lives and property at risk, but fire suppression, which is the predominant management plan in American forests, has had its downside too.

Jeremy, who teaches forest ecology at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, tells me that pine-oak forests predominantly live on south-facing slopes, and as a result have become acclimated to fire over centuries. Some species, such as Table Mountain Pine, don’t open their pine cones unless fire is present. Smokey the Bear has perhaps been, counter-intuitively, the greatest enemy of American forests over the last one hundred years. We’ve learned only in recent decades that fire is a natural system that needs to be reintroduced back into our forests like any other native species extirpated from them due to human interference. Otherwise, fires that take place in future years could be even far worse.

After a night of fitful sleep, I awoke on Friday morning and poked my head outside into the thick campfire-smelling air. Down the street, the charred earth met the road in a wavy edge. Images by photographer Bruce McCamish quickly went viral on Facebook, showing the fire in its frightening splendor. The whole day I felt as though I were in a war zone from the constant thrumming of two Black Hawk helicopters flying overhead as firefighters tried to keep the blaze from coming down the other side of the mountain in front of our home. The choppers filled water into Bambi Buckets (the term firefighters use for helicopter baskets) from the Little River at Perry’s Mill, returning to the mountain dozens of times in an attempt to douse the flames.

By late afternoon, I stopped to talk with firefighter Chris McLemore with Blount County Fire Department, who I spotted walking out of the woods near my house. Low flames were burning off the leaf layer and dead trees around him. I chatted with him as he sat on the truck to rest. He’d only gotten three hours of sleep, and I learned he was the first one on the scene the day before. We speculated about what could have started it (arson, it was reported later) and I thanked him for all his hard work.

Later, another firefighter I spoke with in the vicinity said not to cancel my son’s birthday party over “a little mountain fire.” So I talked with the Highway Patrol manning the roadblock and they agreed to let the guests in the next day. I should have know it wouldn’t be quite that easy, and while we still managed a cool party with helicopters in the background, about one-third of the guests were turned away since our road was only open to residents.

The air remained thick and white for days. Ten days after the first spark, 1,500 acres had burned, and the fire was 90 percent contained. No structures are currently threatened, and there have been no reported injuries. The Blount County Red Cross helped feed the fire crew, 40 of whom came in from Oregon and Alaska to help, and who worked through Thanksgiving.

When I dropped off a donation sent by a friend who made Rice Krispy Treats and bought AA batteries used for their helmet lights, a large crew was coming off duty. They looked tired and hungry, but also fulfilled by their work. Many looked to be in their 20s, and they were a mix of ethnicities with long and short hair, dreadlocks, beards and clean-shaven faces. I nodded and thanked them for helping our community, and they beamed proud smiles through soot-stained faces as they lined up for a barbecue supper at the fire station.

After the threat to our home was over, I was able to look upon the smoldering flames in the woods with a new perspective. They twinkled like fairy lights. In the next few years, the thick underbrush that has burned away on the mountain will make way for wildflowers and new life. That is something I need to see. I just hope that people who say “pray for rain” will also do more, like put pressure on lawmakers who are in adamant denial of climate change at the expense of human lives. To the extent that our shared life together is sacred, then it’s time to find the courage to demand that God and science can indeed occupy the same spaces, whether in conversations or on mountaintops.

Contributing Writer

Élan Young is a freelance writer and editor living on the beautiful Little River in Walland, Tenn. She’s also a longtime board member for the Little River Watershed Association and an advocate for all things Smokies.

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