The following is first-hand testimony from a retired firefighter who survived the Gatlinburg fire because he had “Firewised” the home in anticipation of the fire that he knew would come eventually, and it finally happened on November 28th:
The fire blazed all about him with a bush an inch from a 1,000-gallon propane tank flaming like a torch. David Loveland had just a hoe and a leaf blower; but, because he had spent years preparing for this wildfire, he also had a chance. On the evening of November 28th his wildfire knowledge likely saved his life and that of his wife, Kathaleen.
The couple lived on a steep hill near Pigeon Forge. The next morning, four houses were still standing and more than 20 were burned down. That Loveland’s home was one of the four is not happenstance. Loveland knew that he should have been long gone when the fire hit, but the television news that evening had indicated “there was nothing burning in town”. So, the couple stayed for a while longer until they went outside and noticed the ridge above their home in the direction of Gatlinburg was on fire. They also spotted flying embers streaking overhead. The couple got in the car and headed out the winding, narrow road only to find the way blocked by a tree that had fallen across it so they went back home. There was already no way out and the fire was just getting started. Homes dotting the top of the ridge were already ablaze, and residences below them were also on fire. A tree limb fell over the power lines, knocking out electricity to their home.
Kathaleen raced about the home trying to get important items and documents together. He had a backup generator, but had a problem with it that he didn’t know about until then. He had only the water pressure that was left in the hose, and needed that to protect the propane tank. That left Loveland with a leaf blower with three batteries, a hoe, and a powerless water hose. But, he was prepared and for 10 years he had been working to clear the brush on his property pulling dead branches and bushes away. His goal was to clear all three acres, but he hadn’t gotten to the ridge yet, the difference between the uncleared ridge and the cleared area was significant after the fire.
He had been trying to reduce the fuel-loading in the woods, and was trying to keep open space clear around the house. Mr. Loveland said, “We are bound to get a fire at some point; and, when it happens, I wanted to do everything I could do to reduce the intensity.” His simple labor-intensive strategy saved the couple’s lives. “I am convinced it gave us a chance,” he said. “Without having done this, it would not have mattered. Our house would just be one more foundation left out here.” The burned areas a few yards from his doorstep indicate just how close the fire was to sending the whole place up. “I would be working in the back to blow away hot spots, then I would have to dash to the front and there would be two feet of leaves blown across the front of the house. “Then it was back to the back to get the hot spots.” It went on that way for hours. Kathaleen was outside spotting trouble on one side of the house while David was hard at work on the other. “I don’t think I ever got to a point of despair,” he said. “I was too focused on the task I had to do at that second. I realized if the house burnt, we were probably not going to make it. So, suddenly I had a whole lot of adrenaline and a whole lot of incentive to put out every hot spot.” He pushed a stack of firewood down a hill to get it farther away from his home. He said a rain so light “it barely got my shirt wet” came around 11:30 p.m., and he could sit in a lawn chair to rest. He had received a call from a neighbor who was out of town and wanted to know about his place. Loveland could walk to the foundation that was left of that residence and send his neighbor a picture of the bad news. Then it was back to work as the sprinkle left and the fire did not. At about 4 a.m. a more substantial rain came, giving Loveland a chance to sleep.
The string of houses on the ridge burnt to the ground as were houses down the side of the hill leading to the Spur below him. A burnt skeleton of a car sat next to the spot where the tree had fallen that had blocked the road preventing their escape. “They apparently tried to get out after we did,” he said. He said one neighbor had just finished having some trees cleared, but the cut trees had not been moved off the property. The home was the first to burn to the ground. The 17,000-acre blaze should be a lesson for people as they rebuild here. He said “the possibility of the fire happening again is very real”. “It is part of living in a wild land,” he said. “You are just going to have to accept the fact that leaf litter burns”. “You are living in an area that is available to burn regularly with the leaf litter that falls each year.
Mr. Loveland can testify that home preparation using Firewise principles work and can save your home and your life!