New grant will offer some homeowners chance for free work on “ignition” risks
Clayton Preble, who is the president of the Wildcat Community, recalls a situation several years ago, but couldn’t recall the exact date as it didn’t turn out to be a major story. A downed power line in Bent Tree sparked some leaves and a fire began coming up Burnt Mountain on the west slope.
“But for a change of wind, we’d have had a disaster,” Preble said. “There is not enough resources to put out a major fire on Burnt Mountain.”
Preble and John Tarantini with the Wildcat Firewise program, say the threat of a wildfire on Burnt Mountain “is what keeps us all up at night.”
The Wildcat Com amunity is a consortium of Big Canoe, Bent Tree, Burnt Mountain Estates, Monument Falls, Sassafras Mountain Estates, Tate Mountain Estates, Tomahawk Mountain Civic Association, Windsong and Wintermont communities. It was established in 2006 to promote awareness and improvement of emergency management services there.
According to information presented to the Progress last week and then at the commissioners meeting, the western slope of Burnt Mountain, particularly Bent Tree, is unique for major wildfire potential — uniquely bad.
“When you live at the top of the ridge, you worry about what goes on below you. Fire travels quickly uphill,” said Preble who lives in the Monument Road area along with Tarantini.
The problems they have identified further down the mountain form a recipe for fire disasters like those in Gatlinburg or Hawaii recently. First is the fact that Bent Tree has a tremendous amount of deadfall on the ground, more than other communities. Recent storms have hit them hard, they have a lot of roads that are narrow, with a lot of homes and a significant population tucked inside the gated community.
While the other communities in the area have done a regular job of clearing downed trees, Bent Tree over the years has not, plus they have overhead power lines which creates additional fire hazards, according to Preble and Tarantini.
Preble said the risk on the western slope of Burnt Mountain is substantially bigger, “you have the leaf fall, and more deadfall in proportion to the land there and narrow rights of way.” Plus the winds tend to come from that direction.
With a new federal grant being aimed at “assessment and mitigation” the Wildcat Firewise group has listed Bent Tree as the #1 priority. Second is the small Windsong community as it would act as a firebreak between Bent Tree and the other areas.
This grant could be as much as $4 million, depending on how many homeowner/property owners sign up. Neither the county, nor homeowners are required to provide any matching funds.
Tarantini, who has worked on the fine points of the grant, said if they are approved, these funds can pay contractors to visit a home and come up with a “Firewise” style plan, but then they can actually do the work under the grant.
This could include removing flammable plants near homes; cleaning debris from yards, roofs and gutters; removing dead trees (less than 8 inch dimeter) and other work to reduce “the potential for home ignition in a wildland fire.”
The plan has been supported by the property owners groups and administration in both Big Canoe and Bent and by the county commissioners.
In Big Canoe, they have committed to removing 88 miles of pine straw from public areas (not the golf course) and replacing it with a less flammable mulch. “They want to create a good example,” said Tarantini. “And mulch is better in the long term.”
Responding to questions at the commissioners meeting, it was stressed that the program is completely voluntary and only available to those in the Wildcat communities listed in the charts.
Responding to another question, Preble explained it is their hope that when work has been done to remove all the wildfire ignition hazards around a home the owners will recognize the benefit and then maintain it going forward. He said they feel owners know they should remove dead trees but are just “overwhelmed” at the number.
Commission Chair Kris Stancil, a Bent Tree resident, concurred and said he would personally sign up.
The speakers made clear that homeowners will not ever be charged for the cleanups, saying they worry people will think it’s too good to be true.
Tarantini has 75 percent confidence they will be awarded the grant. And if so they hope to move quickly addressing assessment and the first 50 lots in year one and then 200 lots a year after that. Homes will be prioritized but owners must sign up to be considered.
Under a separate grant, the Wildcat leaders want to address two key concerns with fire fighting.
First, is buying a dedicated woodland fire truck that can reach areas much quicker than a full-sized unit. Preble recounted one fire where it took more than two hours to get equipment into the steep woodlands.
Second is add a 60,000 gallon cistern, to be filled with rainwater, and have lines coming off it to gravity feed back down both sides of the mountain, noting that the challenge of hauling water on steep slopes is not to be taken lightly.
Residents of communities which comprise the Wildcat Community are eligible to sign at www.wildcatcommunityga.org. by following the Home Hazard Assessment Request Form button.