Standing before a room full of volunteers, Williamson County Fire Coordinator Jay Bonson told his firefighters what to anticipate in leaving for Gatlinburg – one of Tennessee’s tourist hubs riddled with wildfires.
The blaze ravaged Sevier County Monday night into Tuesday morning, with crews still fighting to contain it after rain moved through East Tennessee. Wind speeds picked up Monday evening with gusts up to 85 mph, causing the wildfire to spread quickly throughout the area. Winds on Tuesday morning calmed to 15 mph.
“This is a fire for the history books,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said at press conference at 11 a.m. Tuesday. “We have 14 active structure fires. Most of the cases it’s what left of the foundation. Some of that material will burn for hours or days.
“The worst of the fire is over. Our focus today is to suppress what fires we still have burning to make access to roads.”
The fires spread from the Smoky Mountains, destroying dozens of buildings and hundreds of homes.
To help those in need in East Tennessee, nearly 50 firefighters from Williamson County have started making the trek. The Franklin Fire Department sent 11 personnel and two ladder trucks. Williamson County Fire and Rescue will contribute two tank trucks, two brush trucks, two support vehicles and 10 people. Spring Hill’s department has taken its chief, 10 personnel and one engine to help combat the blaze, while the Brentwood Fire Department sent eight firefighters, a fire engine, a brush truck and a pickup truck.
The willingness of area firefighters to charge into the line of duty in East Tennessee was stressed by Deanna Lambert, community relations director for the City of Brentwood.
“They’re all eager to go and help,” Lambert said of Brentwood’s firefighters. “That speaks volumes about these guys’ personalities.”
That volunteer spirit, however, raised logistical problems for local fire departments. If everyone who wanted to go did go, would there be enough firefighters left to deal with emergencies at home?
Teams of firefighters had to be carefully selected from different shifts and different stations in Williamson County to make sure that enough of a force remained behind.
This careful planning could not take too long, though.
“They want us there right now,” Bonson said. “They could put us to work right now.”
Crews pulled out of Williamson County at around 9 a.m.
Above: Franklin firefighters leave for East Tennessee
When Bonson explained the strategy to the group, he said he wasn’t sure where specifically they would fight fires. But he broke the squads into three task forces.
“They have asked for specific people and trucks,” Bonson said. “What we are going to do at this point is for what Gatlinburg has asked for, which is what Franklin has committed to the group. Franklin is going as one task force. The other two will fit the needs of what is needed into Pigeon Forge.
“We had enough to breakdown into two. We will have a task force of Spring Hill, the County and Brentwood together. I have extras coming from Brentwood that aren’t here. They will meet us on the highway. Based on our numbers, we will send a couple of Brentwood guys to the Franklin group.”
The squads packed away cots and MREs for a just-in-case measure. Bonson said the group would more than likely stay in one of the hotels that hadn’t burned.
“They need help with both the structure fires and the brush fires themselves,” Spring Hill Fire Chief Terry Hood said. “We are expecting a two to three, or three to four day deployment.”
Gatlinburg’s fire personnel will provide another update at 4 p.m.
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Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said his city would take any and all help from those willing to lend a hand to their East Tennessee neighbors.
“We’ve all been receiving a tremendous amount of phone calls and texts of asking,” he said. “Any organization who wants to reach out to Gatlinburg, we will accept that.”
You can help this Giving Tuesday, a worldwide day intended for philanthropy and generosity.
Workers at the Knoxville Expo Center will take donations for the impacted areas. The Expo Center – located at 5441 Clinton Highway in Knoxville – will accept tooth brushes, tooth paste, water, baby wipes, dog food, kennels and more. Those needing more information can call (865)686-3200 or (865)919-8114.
Ways to aid in disaster relief can be found by visiting redcross.org/donate.
To donate by check or to this specific cause, complete this donation form by printing and mailing to the American Red Cross, PO Box 37839, Boone, IA 50037-0839.
To make a $10 donation by text, text the word REDCROSS to 90999.
To volunteer, particularly after the evacuation and during the wildfire recovery, visit redcross.org/volunteers.