Two years ago today, Sevier Countians along with state and federal officials were sifting through ashes and trying to understand why wildfires roared out of the Smokies into Gatlinburg two days earlier.
Blount Countians, who like the rest of America had just celebrated Thanksgiving, had reason for giving special thanks.
Winds reaching up to 87 mph swept flames out of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, burning more than 10,000 acres, causing the loss of at least 14 lives — but the Chimney Tops 2 fire spared Blount County.
Not that Blount County wasn’t threatened. Forests and fields were dry. There were 18 wildfires in the Townsend area that November. Some were half an acre. Some were 4 to 5 acres. Volunteer firefighters responded.
On Nov. 28, 2016, when winds were whipping flames out of the park, Townsend Area Volunteer Fire Department had firefighters stationed at the county line at Wears Valley, monitoring in case the fire approached the Townsend coverage area. Earlier that day, Blount County Schools coordinated with the Blount County Emergency Management Agency to arrange for buses to evacuate 90 students and 30 staff from the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont as a precaution.
In the aftermath of Chimney Tops 2, some Blount Countians got proactive. At the time, only two Blount communities were certified as “Firewise.” The National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise Communities Program teaches homeowners how to prepare their homes for the risk of wildfire. The program is co-sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Association of State Foresters.
FenceRail Gap in Walland had been certified in 2009. Top of the World in Tallassee achieved certification eight months before the big fire, becoming the 16th community in Tennessee to be Firewise certified. Two years later that number has risen to 25. Add to the list in Blount County the communities of Laurel Valley in Townsend, Little Round Top in Townsend, Saddle Ridge in Walland and Stonegate Community in Townsend.
Virtually half of all the Firewise communities in the state are in Blount and Sevier counties — a total of 12 with six in each. They deserve a nice pat on the back for being prepared rather than counting on luck when wildfire strikes. But there are other communities that could use a good kick in the butt to get them moving on Firewise certification. Where could that be? See for yourself. Just open your door and look outside.