Gatlinburg resident Pete Jucker will never forget what he was doing on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.
“It was a strange day,” recalls Jucker, a ski and snowboard instructor and Gatlinburg shop owner. “Everything I did was trying to tell me this was not your average day.”
Jucker and his wife, Joy, were preparing to move their store, Puzzled Etc., to a new location and they had enlisted the help of several volunteers.
“Joy and I had planned for her to pick up fried chicken to feed all the helpers who were to arrive at 6 p.m. at Ober Gatlinburg,” he says. “The air was smoky, and I had to go to the post office before going up the mountain. As I walked out of the post office, the sun moved through the smoke in a weird way, creating fantastic colors like fire. I took three pictures and posted them on Facebook with the heading, ‘The sky is on fire.’ ”
Within a matter of hours, a fast-moving wildfire raged through the Juckers’ neighborhood, Chalet Village, destroying their once picture-perfect community. Of Chalet Village’s 1,200 structures and homes, the fire consumed 533.
“Our home was totally incinerated – almost nothing of our 17-year accumulation was left,” Jucker says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the Chimney Tops 2 fire would turn our world upside down.”
Fourteen people were killed in the fire, including a mother and her two daughters who lived only a block away from the Juckers. Joy barely escaped as the fire moved in on their home, driving down the burning mountain with the couple’s two dogs and cat in tow.
“I have spent a lot of time thinking about the important stuff in life,” Jucker says, “and it is not stuff.”
Since the 2016 wildfire, the Juckers and other members of the Chalet Village community are doing all they can to ensure they are better prepared if wildfire ever threatens their homes again. They are participating in a nationwide program called Firewise USA that helps homeowners become more aware of the risks that occur while living in a wildland-urban interface, or an area where homes are built near lands prone to wildfire. Firewise USA exists to save lives and property from wildfire, and encourages neighbors to work together to prevent losses.
“Spreading awareness is key,” says Brook Smith, Area Forester for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry. “You have to make people aware of an issue before they will have the desire to do anything about it.”
Part of the pathway to becoming recognized as a Firewise site is creating a Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Chalet Village has worked with the Division of Forestry, the Gatlinburg Fire Department and the National Park Service to complete their plan. Once it is finalized and approved, Chalet Village will be recognized by Firewise USA and will be eligible to apply for grant money to complete projects within their plan – up to $20,000 the first year and $10,000 each year after.
Chalet Village hosted a Firewise Day in October 2017, where 60 community members gathered to learn about the need for wildfire preparedness. Attendees also discovered how to better landscape their properties using plant species that hinder the spread of fire, rather than help it.
“During the Firewise Day at Chalet Village, Forestry employees, local fire department personnel and Great Smoky Mountains National Park employees were on hand to provide information about fuel reduction, defensible space around their homes, threats from invasive plants, Firewise landscaping choices and a brief history of fire in the Smoky Mountains,” says Diane Warwick, urban watershed forester for the Division of Forestry. “Certain types of plants are more flammable than others. Hazard mitigation, or fuel reduction, along with defensible space and Firewise landscaping are key components of a Firewise community plan.”
One of the most noticeable invasive plant species that is a fire concern is kudzu.
“Kudzu is a sprawling vine that is extremely aggressive and has the potential to capture many acres. When it goes dormant in winter, it becomes excellent fuel for spreading fire quickly,” Smith says. “Some areas may convert from a forested setting to a kudzu patch if landowners do not take steps to stop this process.”
Without fuel to consume, wildfires will dramatically decrease or even go out.
“One of the biggest impacts homeowners can have on their property is a well-landscaped Home Ignition Zone,” Smith says.
The zone extends 200 feet out from the house, and as it gets closer to the home, landscaping should thin to provide less fuel for fire.
“This doesn’t mean all vegetation must be cleared, but a wise eye to breaking up the fuel and keeping more fire-prone plants away from the structure is important,” Smith says.
Because fire is a natural part of our environment, Smith says the question is not if a fire will occur, but when.
“The time to start planning for a fire-related emergency is not when smoke is in the air, but beforehand,” he says. “People choose to live in this natural environment and it is up to us to mitigate that risk and ensure our safety and the protection of our homes as best we can. The Smoky Mountains are a special place on this planet with a significant amount of biodiversity and species richness. People come from around the world to see our mountains and forests, and it’s up to us to be responsible landowners and protect the native ecology and natural beauty we are blessed and entrusted with.”
One cause of wildland fires is escaped debris fire. Use these tips when burning debris:
- Avoid burning on dry, windy days.
- Burn late in the day after the wind has quieted and humidity increases, after 5 p.m.
- Stay with all outdoor fires until they are completely out.
- Keep water and hand tools ready in case your fire should spread.
- Burn permits are required by law Oct. 15 – May 15. Contact your local Division of Forestry office for information.
Click here for more information about becoming a Firewise site.