Fire-damaged area faces long recovery

Proximity of cabins encouraged the blaze to spread
Mar. 21, 2013 @ 12:26 PM

A day after rain mostly doused a fast moving wildfire that claimed dozens of cabins, Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson reflected on how to keep people safe in the near future and long-term.

The near future involves people returning to pick up their belongings or to learn the fates of their homes. With small fires rekindling, debris including nails littering the roads and some structures ready to collapse or slide down steep mountainsides, it will be a long time before some parts of Black Bear Ridge Resort are safe again. Sheriff’s deputies were stationed at the two roads leading into the resort from Lost Branch Road, turning most people away from the more heavily damaged areas.

“The recovery is going to take a while,” he said. “It’s not going to be quick.”

The long term involves encouraging resort builders to follow Firewise guidelines that Watson believes could help prevent some of the damage seen in the recent blaze, which started Sunday. According to updated numbers released Tuesday, officials now believe the fire destroyed or damaged 81 structures and covered 161 acres.

Riding along with Watson through the burnt out shells of so many cabins made it clear why both issues are a concern. The fire started in the Waldens Creek Volunteer Fire Department’s jurisdiction, and only small pockets encroached on Pigeon Forge city limits, but thanks to a mutual aid agreement Watson was among the first on the scene.

Along with nails and larger debris strewn along the roads, he spotted flames coming from inside one partially burned cabin. The chief paused for a moment to call firefighters monitoring another location to come put water on the new fire. Then he went back to pointing out some issues he hopes the property owners and other developers will look to improve upon in the future.

He suggests homeowners put up fences and control who comes out once law enforcement and firefighters leave. “Limiting access to all this is very, very, very important,” he said.

Watson pointed to another house. “Look at that. That’s burned right through and looks like it’s getting ready to fall down.”

When it comes to pointers on how to make mountaintop homes and rentals safer from wildfires, Watson recommended developers and homeowners look at a website, firewise.org. He praised the county for enacting regulations in recent years that address some of the issues firefighters faced.

Some of the cabins were separated by a small driveway that appeared to serve more than one. The development was built a few years ago, shortly before the county enacted planning measures that call for 50-foot setbacks between properties. Watson said those will make a difference for future developments. In this case, heavy winds easily whipped the fire from structure to structure because of their proximity. Ambient heat from the structures also helped the fire move.

“What you’re really talking about here is lot-line issues," Watson said. "When this one was built there was not the regulation of lot distances there is now."

Some of the affected houses were separated by only 20 feet. "If the current measures were followed, this wouldn’t be as bad," Watson said.

He commended the developers for the effort they put into the water system, which featured a number of fire hydrants firefighters were able to use.

The development has 139 cabins, and having the water available helped firefighters save some cabins, Watson said.

Additionally, county regulations can help make it easier to get fire engines up to the areas affected by fires. Less-steep roads help; county regulations call for an incline of 12 to 15 percent.

Watson hopes resort builders will consider the vegetation they use to decorate the areas between the houses.

“That pine tree’s awesome,” he said, pointing to one that was still standing in a clear area. “It looks great, but it goes up like a torch.”

He recommended looking at the Firewise site for advise on vegetation that might not catch fire as easily.

Watson also encouraged developers to consider whether they’re leaving firefighters much opportunity to fight fires on some inclines. The backs of many cabins edged over steep embankment, and although that makes for spectacular views, it left no opportunity for firefighters to get equipment around to extinguish flames or to keep them from spreading.

Those conditions weren’t the only reason there was so much damage, but they did make it harder for the scores of firefighters responding to the blaze to get it under control and stop it from consuming so many cabins. While most weren’t permanent homes, they were valuable property, and Watson said he hopes developers will take the painful lessons to heart.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com