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Smoke from Western wildfires settles in local area

Ask Derek Eisentrout if it’s true that smoke from wildfires in the western United States has drifted east across the country, and his answer will be firm.

“That’s absolutely true and it’s absolutely out there right now,” said Eisentrout, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Morristown. “If you go outside and try to look at the mountains, you’ll probably see what looks very, very hazy. That is smoke. That is smoke from those wildfires.”

As wildfires blaze in the western United States and Canada, smoke has worked its way around “a large ridge” over the central part of the country and circulated down to East Tennessee and beyond, Eisentrout said.

“Until we get a system in here to kind of move it out, we are going to have the smoke in the area, kind of the reduced air quality,” Eisentrout said.

Specifically, the wildfires are causing so much smoke that it is lifted into a jet stream and blown across the country by eastward winds, according to Amy Huff, a senior research scientist at IM Systems Group, a contractor of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

It’s common for smoke to travel from the western U.S. to the east; it happens several times a year, Huff said. But it doesn’t often fall down to surface levels and affect air quality.

“What’s different this time is that there’s a high-pressure system over the eastern U.S., and that’s causing the air to sink and mix down to the surface,” Huff said.

One of the major wildfires has taken place in Oregon, where Maryville locals Peter and Amy Vandenhurk and their four children were traveling through during a recent cross-country road trip. They didn’t see the fires, but experienced the heat wave that gripped the area.

They went to Crater Lake in Oregon and it was almost 120 degrees, Peter Vandenhurk said. His wife said they drove back quickly until they reached the Rocky Mountains because their van didn’t have air conditioning; the family bought bags of ice and fans to keep cool.

“It was awful,” Amy Vandenhurk said.

There was an air-quality alert Tuesday for the Tri-Cities area in Tennessee, but not for the Blount County area, Eisentrout said. Precipitation earlier in the week helped eliminate particulate matter from the air in the area, helping the air quality, he said.

As the smoke from the wildfires settles into the Tennessee Valley, a frontal boundary is needed to disperse it.

“It’s got to go somewhere before it finally gets in concentrations that can’t be detected,” Eisentrout said.

Huff said a cold front is moving through the northeastern United States and should get to Tennessee sometime today. Smoky conditions should improve locally by Friday, she noted.

Townsend approves Webb Road annexation, puts a pause on zoning request

Townsend commissioners late Tuesday approved on first reading annexing nearly 14 acres of land off Webb Road on the north side of Little River, but deferred requests to alter its zoning, given that developers have expressed interest in building rental cabins there.

Attached to the request for annexation from Blount County to Townsend came a request to rezone the land to R-1 Low Density Residential District.

Commissioners unanimously approved the annexation — the first for the town in 2021 — but stopped short at the rezoning after an engineer representing the property owners explained they wanted to build rental cabins.

“They’re wanting to put in some rental cabins and a small event center to host church groups, weddings, reunions, what have you,” Civil & Environmental Consultants engineer Matt Sprinkle told commissioners.

“That is contiguous with our city limits,” Townsend Mayor Michael Talley said, “so I don’t think that would be an issue. ... But, as far as the rental program, is it going to be kind of like a VRBO or like a business establishment?”

“It would be short-term rentals, but it would be operated by the property owner,” Sprinkle said.

“I wonder how appropriate it would be to zone that R-1, seeing as how they plan to establish it as a business,” Talley said.

“Tourist residences” are permitted in the R-1 Low Density Residential District, according to chapter 6 of the city’s code, but more commercial endeavors might require something like a B-1 zoning — General Business. Most of the land right off U.S. Highway 321 in Townsend is zoned B-1.

“I’d like to see how the property owners around it feel since it’s all residential right now,” Commissioner Becky Headrick added, reflecting on how the land might be developed.

Other commissioners noted that a rezoning might require a formal public hearing.

“As far as zoning, you would qualify for B-1 zoning request because it is adjacent to other B-1 properties,” Talley said.

“But then you’ve got the subdivision, which is R-1,” Headrick said, noting a cluster of homes just to the north of the land in question.

“Yeah, they’d probably want to have a chance to give public input,” Talley said.

Before the board voted, Commissioner Don Stallions asked Sprinkle, “So, you’re good with annexation going forward without knowing about zoning?”

“Yes,” Sprinkle said.

Since zoning goes hand-in-hand with how the city will serve the land, a move to create a plan of services for the land also was stalled until a later meeting.

The annexation likely will come back to the city in its August commission meeting for second reading.

Property records show the land’s owners as of Jan. 1, 2021, were Nathan and Kathrine Schrock.

Townsend recently has seen a flurry of economic proposals including bike trails, a distillery, a Family Dollar-Dollar Tree location, a brewery and kitchen — a Mark Oldham family project — next to the IGA and rental spaces, similar to the ones discussed Tuesday.

Some of these are moving forward: Oldham scored a beer permit Tuesday night and wants to open part of that operation in the fall.

Some aren’t: The Dollar Tree project was apparently canned, according to a letter from the Townsend Cades Cove Gateway Alliance.

Leaders are keeping up with commercial development not only by hearing interested parties out in public meetings but also by tweaking codes.

For example, Tuesday saw an ordinance pass unanimously requiring site plans to “be prepared and certified by a licensed engineer, landscape architect and/or surveyor,” something that wasn’t required until now.

Alcoa City Schools welcomes familiar faces on first day of school

Alcoa City Schools has many new employees for 2021-22, but they include more than half a dozen very familiar faces — recent alumni who have returned to the district.

At Alcoa Elementary School, two of the new teachers once had Principal Monique Maples as their teacher.

“Miss Maples made me want to be a teacher,” said Abby Breeden, who started in Alcoa as a fifth grader, helped at the elementary school as community service and graduated from Alcoa High School in 2014.

She returned to student teach at AES with second grade teacher Jennifer Kelly, then taught for three years at Emerald Academy, a charter school in Knoxville, before coming to AES, where her mother works in the cafeteria.

“Alcoa is home,” Breeden said on Wednesday, July 21, as the district began three days of a staggered start to the school year, welcoming a third of the students each day.

She’s working to create the type of “intoxicating positivity” she experienced as a student, recalling how Maples would greet students with “Welcome to reading.”

“The environment here is crazy good,” Breeden said, focused on building children up with positivity.

Even as they were leading small groups to lunch that first day, teachers complimented the kids with comments such as, “I love how you’re walking in a straight line.”

Breeden likes to energize her students with chants and gestures, like one that tells them, “You’re incredible, like the Hulk,” as she flexes her biceps.

Students also practice positive behaviors, such as kindness and respect, in role-playing activities.

“If they love you and they’re excited, they’re going to be 100% better,” she said.

Madison Davis started at AES as a fourth grade student. After she graduated from the high school in 2016, she came back to work in the Stars extended care program for three and a half years while she was earning her degree in elementary education.

She was a student teacher at Alcoa Elementary in spring 2020 with second grade teacher Betsy James when the pandemic closed school buildings.

Davis started the 2020-21 school year as a paraprofessional at AES, in the second semester filled in for a second grade teacher on leave and worked during the summer learning camp.

Now she has a long-term placement as a first grade teacher.

She credits Maples and eighth grade teacher Morgan Hodson with inspiring her. “Their teaching style really influenced me, the way they built relationships,” Davis said.

As a paraprofessional at AES, Cori Hamlett helped with first grade reading assessments on the first day of school. “What I got the privilege to do is have the children read to me,” she said. “Working with children is a privilege.”

When Hamlett came to Alcoa in the seventh grade from Virginia, she said, “I wasn’t the best student.” Yet she felt supported and saw examples of people growing, such as teachers becoming administrators.

After graduating from AHS in 2017, she worked in retail and then the extended care Adventure Club in Maryville’s Foothills Elementary, becoming assistant director.

Not only is she back in an Alcoa classroom now as a teaching assistant, but she’s also preparing to start classes herself. Hamlett plans to take classes to be certified to teach English as a foreign language, which would allow her to teach remotely or in other countries.

Wednesday, July 21, Davis read her first graders, “First Day Jitters,” by Julie Danneberg, and took their photos with a frame that said, “First Day of First Grade.”

One boy skipping away after his picture said, “I love your class already. This is so fun.” Maybe he’ll become an Alcoa teacher.