Marilyn and Gary Stephens were in Florida when they got the call: their Tennessee property was under threat of wildfire.
The call came in April 2016, some 10 years after the couple had built their getaway home in the English Mountain community of Sevier County. A suspected act of arson had ignited a fast-spreading wildland fire, threatening the Stephens home as well as many others in the community.
“I panicked,” Marilyn says. The couple swiftly left for Tennessee. “When we finally got there, I don’t think I was ever so thankful to see a home still standing. The fire burned all the way around, but none of the homes were damaged.”
The fire burned about 300 acres and forced at least 30 homes to be evacuated. Marilyn and her neighbors quickly credited the response and diligence of firefighters who “were incredible,” she says. “They stayed at least a couple of nights to help keep the fire from damaging any homes.”
But Marilyn and her neighbors were prepared as well, taking proactive steps and responsibility to help protect themselves and their homes from wildland fires. The English Mountain residents participated and became certified in the national Firewise Communities program.
Spreading the Word
The Firewise program is a national multi-agency effort designed to reach beyond the fire service. It involves homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers and others in the effort to protect people, property and natural resources from the risk of wildland fire before one ignites. Communities actively work to reduce wildfire risks.
Preparation includes making action plans, taking free education courses and making a home “Firewise” by taking steps like removing leaves or brush from property.
If not for Firewise and the extra steps taken by residents to protect their community, some of the English Mountain homes would have burned, according to fire officials.
The program is being promoted across the state in communities similar to English Mountain and in cities, counties, and local fire departments. The Tennessee Fire Chiefs Association named Bolivar Fire Chief Lynn Price as Fire Chief of the Year after he made the city the first one in Tennessee to become Firewise certified.
To get the word out in English Mountain, Leon Konz, of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry and Firewise coordinator for East Tennessee, met with residents to present information about the Firewise program, visiting individual homes to point out actions homeowners could take to better prepare for fires.
“Just getting rid of a few leaves and pine needles off the roofs, out of gutters and around the house can go a long way toward protecting your home from wildfire,” he says.
“And it’s all free. The Division of Forestry does not charge to come out and inspect a home or talk to a community.”
Cindy and Ron Mitchell weren’t familiar with Firewise when they moved to their English Mountain home in 2011, but they learned about the program just a few months later when they nearly lost their home from a fire that had started in a neighboring condominium.
There was no damage, but the incident prompted Konz to visit the community at that time to spread the good word on Firewise. Just as the Stephenses did, the Mitchells heeded his advice.
“We formed a Firewise committee,” says Cindy, now chair of the committee. “Leon was great in helping us with the process. We had a Firewise day in June 2015, and later that year we were recognized as a Firewise Community.”
In becoming certified, a Firewise Community can become eligible to receive federal grants toward continuing to protect a neighborhood and individual homes from potential fires.
“I guarantee we’re going to continue with all the Firewise steps because they saved us, our neighbors and other participants,” Marilyn says. “We’re believers.”