Community rallies around firefighters, cabin guests

Mar. 20, 2013 @ 12:08 PM

Prayers were offered. A church opened its fellowship hall. A hotel opened its rooms. Restaurants and stores sent food and supplies, and people came by to give money.

When word got out that firefighters from all over the area were fighting a blaze that claimed dozens of structures near Pigeon Forge, people in Sevier County came out to help any way they could.

Calvary Baptist Church on Wears Valley Road offered its fellowship hall as a place where firefighters could eat or rest, and where renters and owners affected by the fire could come to wait or get information during the day. The church is just above Lost Branch Road, which was the main route into the area affected by the fire.

Volunteers from several agencies were looking for a place to let the firefighters “rehab” — essentially, take a breather — and the pastor offered the fellowship hall, said Danette Rolen, one of the volunteers.

And then food came. Lots of it. Dozens of pizzas, trays of sandwiches were offered along with pasta and chicken, salads and any number of other dishes. Dollywood dropped off meals and passes for volunteers.

“It’s the community coming together,” Rolen said. “The donations have come from most of the restaurants in Sevier County.”

Grocery stores took part, too. In some cases, they reported that people had come in and given donations to staff, asking them to find out what the firefighters needed and use they money to buy it.

It was a welcome sight to exhausted firefighters, most of whom just took the time to wolf down some food before going back out.

A pair of Sevier County Rescue Squad members said they had been on the scene from the start and were going back as soon as they finished eating. Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson said he’d stolen about 30 minutes of sleep over night. With so many firefighters coming to help from out of town, he and other officers were helping to guide newcomers to the fire zone.

Rolen said they had a steady stream of people coming to the church, mostly emergency responders and people who were either displaced from rented cabins in the resort area or cabin owners trying to find out if their property was destroyed.

Tom Keene, of Lexington, Ky., was there with his wife to get some food. They were renting a cabin this week, and they’d been hiking in the national park when the fire started. By the time they got back, the road was closed and they had to stay in a hotel.

Monday, they were waiting to see if they would get a chance to find out whether the cabin where they were staying had been destroyed, along with the things they brought for the vacation.

“Our inconvenience is nothing,’ Keene said. “This is a vacation we’ll never forget.

“We got to to the motel last night and we just prayed for (the firefighters) that they’d be safe.”

Mike Womble was waiting there, too. He said he had been staying in his camper on property near the resort; he was waiting to see if it survived the blaze.

“I went to church with my wife and came back and it was all roped off,” he said. “I didn’t know what was happening, but I could see the flames.”

He stayed with family in Kodak overnight.

Others found their way to a command center set up at the Antique Mall on Wears Valley, where owners let Emergency Management Agency personnel park their trailers while other responders and media came and went.

Two couples from Indiana said they were trying to make the best of a vacation intended to celebrate one woman’s birthday.

Cassie Endris said they had their purses and wallets, but lost the clothes and other items they’d brought with them. Still ,they were trying to salvage the vacation while they waited to see if their belongings were intact.

“We’re going to go to the Aquarium, maybe, must still have a little fun,” she said.

They were on an outing to Dixie Stampede when the fire started; when they tried to get back to their rental cabin, they found the road was closed. The owner of the cabin paid for them to stay at a hotel.

Betty Fore said she saw the fire start from the cabin she and her family own. At first, she said, it appeared the firefighters would get it contained.

She said she wasn’t really scared at that point. “There was a lot of manpower and they were doing a good job,” she said.

Then the heavy winds carried embers to other cabins, and the fire started spreading.

She believed her cabin was destroyed based on overhead shots she’d seen of the area Monday. ‘We just lost stuff,” she said. “That can be replaced.” She said she was more concerned about the firefighters and people who were living permanently in the area.

Fore said she’d gotten a hotel room for the night. That seemed to be the case for most of the displaced cabin renters. A Gatlinburg hotel also opened rooms for people who didn’t have a place to stay, and the Red Cross opened a shelter at Pigeon Forge Community Center. Both were reportedly lightly used.

Not far away, Joe Dodgen was resting in his office at Dodgen Log Cabin Rentals. He said he’d smelled the smoke from the fire while fishing on Douglas lake, and had helped move cars from houses threatened by the blaze.

The fire threatened some of the cabins on his property at different times; he said he’d been there overnight and that firefighters  started a backfire to consume brush and other fuel on the ground between some structures and the fire as it reached to top of a ridge.

“So far, we haven’t had any damage except brush fires on my property,” he said.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com