ROBBINS — Drive through the West Robbins neighborhood near here, and it isn’t difficult to find the scars that remain from November’s wildfire. New growth is starting to appear, but the pine trees that were scorched along West Robbins Road have died, now standing bare of needles as a reminder of the wind-driven fire that swept through the community last fall, threatening dozens of homes and forcing evacuations.
That fire, along with the Chimney Rock fire that burned a sizable chunk of woodland in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, were the most significant of a large number of wildfires that impacted Scott County during the fall, as a persistent drought and hot weather combined to fuel one of the worst wildfire seasons in Tennessee history. And, yet, Scott County was lucky. No lives were lost to the fires, and all homes were spared.
Sevier County wasn’t so lucky. There, a wildfire began near Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Nov. 23, reached Gatlinburg on Nov. 28, and burned 17,000 acres, while killing 14 people and destroying more than 2,400 structures.
It may seem unlikely that such an active and devastating wildfire season could unfold two years in a row in Tennessee, but state officials don’t want to take chances. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency last week asked residents across the state to take measures to ensure that their homes and property are fire-safe.
“Weather forecasts are indicating warmer and drier conditions for Tennessee through spring and early summer,” said TEMA director Patrick Sheehan. “So, we are asking everyone to be aware of wildfire risks and to take care to avoid needless and potentially deadly wildfires.”
There are a number of steps that homeowners can take to protect their property from wildfires that encroach upon their neighborhoods, the state agency says. Among them are removing leaves and other debris from gutters to prevent embers from igniting the home, removing dead vegetation and other items from beneath decks and porches, and keeping flammable materials, such as stacks of firewood or propane tanks, at least 30 feet from the home.
TEMA also recommends wildfire preparedness that includes planned evacuation and escape routes, a family emergency kit and having emergency plans for the whole family, including pets.
Additionally, the State Fire Marshal’s Office is advising residents to follow basic outdoor fire safety tips to avoid unintentionally sparking a wildfire.
Among the tips offered by the fire marshal’s office is to have an adult present at all time when a bonfire, fire pit or outdoor fireplace is burning, keep children and pets well away from open flames, keeping grills well away from the home and away from overhanging branches, and to never park a vehicle over a pile of leaves.
“The risk to lives, homes and property is too great to ever take outdoor burning lightly,” said Fire Marshal Julie Mix McPeak. “Tennesseans should always take extra precautions when burning outdoors and report any suspicious or unauthorized fires immediately to local and state law enforcement authorities.”
While the wildfire season is nearing its end, state authorities say wildfires are always a risk, especially during dry weather. And it will not be long before the fire season begins anew with the arrival of autumn.
“Tennesseans are aware of the difficult fire season we experienced last fall that was highlighted by the loss of life and property in Sevier County,” said state forester Jere Jeter. “I want to remind everyone to obtain a permit when one is required for outdoor burning and to exercise extreme caution when burning. Any controlled fire has the potential to escape and become a harmful wildfire. Your fire is your responsibility.”