“What would we do if a Gatlinburg hit our community?” said Firewise coordinator
Firewise Communities Brochure
Firewise Communities USA recommends homeowners in wildland-urban areas implement the “Zone Concept,” which offers tips for protecting the home in the “home ignition zone” that extends up to 200 feet in high hazard areas.
A May 4th fire that burned 100 acres in Gatlinburg served as an unwelcome reminder of the devastating, deadly blaze in the same Tennessee town last November.
The big Gatlinburg fire, a perfect storm of high wind, ample fuel and persistent drought conditions, destroyed over 2,400 homes and killed at least 12 people. Last fall, leaders of Wildcat Community, Inc. – a consortium of eight communities in the area off Burnt Mountain Road that straddles the Pickens/Dawson line – used the Gatlinburg fire and fires in north Georgia as momentum for revitalizing and restructuring their Firewise Task Force, which focuses on wildfire safety awareness, prevention and education.
The Firewise Communities/USA© Recognition Program is a program of the National Fire Prevention Association. The program is co-sponsored by the USDA Forest Service, the US Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters.
Looking ahead, the local non-profit wants to create a stronger emphasis on the individual’s responsibility for protecting their home - and their community - from wildfires. They are even offering free home hazard assessments to members of the Wildcat Community, which has 3,500 houses on over 13,000 acres of land. The Wildcat Community includes Big Canoe, Burnt Mountain Estates, Monument Falls, Sassafras Mountain Estates, Tate Mountain Estates, Tomahawk, Windsong and Wintermont communities.
Don’t let a good crisis go to waste
Firewise Coordinator Dennis LaGatta points to identified water sources in Monument Falls, one of eight mountain communities in Wildcat Community, Inc. The Wildcat Community has revitalized its Firewise program after the deadly Gatlinburg fire last fall, which created a renewed interest among the public about wildfire safety.
“We were three months of close calls,” said Firewise Task Force volunteer and firefighter John Tarantini as he looked at a photograph of a September blaze off one of the overlooks on Burnt Mountain. “The only reason that was containable was because there was no wind. The wind is what killed Gatlinburg.”
Three acres burned in that fire. Other close calls last fall were 12 acres that burned in the Dawson Wildlife Management Area and one acre on Coldstream Road.
Firewise Coordinator Dennis LaGatta called last fall’s drought conditions “unprecedented,” and he and other Firewise leaders caution that with summer heating up, now is the time to get prepared.
“What would we do if a Gatlinburg hit our community?” LaGatta said. “Last fall the risk was so high for wildfires that we had to ask ourselves this question. What was it the mayor of Chicago said? Don’t let a good crisis go to waste? Well that’s what we’re doing.”
The 13,000-acre Wildcat area is in what’s called a “wildland-urban interface” where people live close to uninhabited areas prone to wildfires. LaGatta said when people move to these areas there is an assumed responsibility to become educated and take appropriate steps to prevent fire.
“Fires are part of the normal life cycle, but with homes close by we obviously don’t want fire in the area,” he said.
The statistics are sobering. According to the National Interagency Fire Service, in 2015 there were 68,151 wildfires in the U.S., which burned 10,125,149 acres. LaGatta said only a fraction of those, just over 100, were handled by the “big guns” in the firefighting world like the U.S. Forestry Service. The rest is left up to local entities like Dawson County Fire Station #8 on Monument Road, which serves Pickens and Dawson, and the 14 trained volunteers that work from that station.
One fire, we can handle, but more than two?
Dawson County Fire Station #8 was an initiative of the Wildcat Community’s Firewise program, and a partnership between Pickens and Dawson counties. It was built in 2009 to fill a gaping need for fire protection in the mountainous, secluded area. Tarantini estimates that about 40 percent of their calls come from Pickens County.
“Before that station this area had an ISO rating of 9,” he said. “That brought it down to a five.”
Still, the station relies on volunteers, most of whom are over 60, and limited resources.
The Monument Road station boasts a 45,000-gallon water tank and Firewise leaders have identified other water sources in the area, including a few swimming pools, but they say when you take into account those limited resources, the 20-minute ride from nearest help, and the fact that a single fire could need 10s of thousands of gallons of water to extinguish, it’s imperative homeowners become a first line of defense.
“One fire we can handle,” LaGatta said. “Two, we’d be able to handle and would do okay. More than two, I mean, we can only do so much with volunteers.”
What can you do to have a Firewise home?
There are several measures homeowners can take to make their houses and property more resistant to fire, from choosing fire-resistant landscape and construction materials, to implementation of the Firewise “Zone Concept,” which reduces fuel sources around the home.
“Fires are caused by weather, fuel and terrain,” Tarantini said. “We can’t control weather or terrain, but we can control fuel.”
Among tips outlined in the Zone Concept, homeowners are advised to keep leaves and needles off their roof and deck and create a “fuel-free” area within three to five feet of the home’s perimeter. From five feet to 30 feet out, homeowners should thin and space vegetation, remove dead leaves and needles, prune shrubs and tree limbs. It is also recommended they keep areas around decks, sheds, fences and swing sets clear of debris and vegetation.
You can also find more detailed information about how to have a Firewise home at www.firewise.org. Learn more about the Wildcat Community and its recognized Firewise program at www.wildcatcommunity.org.