PIGEON FORGE — Fire blazed all about him. A bush inches from a 1,000-gallon propane tank flamed like a torch.
“The propane tank is going to blow!” yelled his wife, Kathaleen.
“Like hell it is!” he responded.
David Loveland had just a hoe and a leaf blower; but, because he had spent years preparing for a wildfire, he also had a chance.
Loveland, 61, retired as fire manager for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in November 2015. He knows about wildfires. He grew up in the Seattle area. He worked for a half-dozen years in Yosemite and other national parks of the west where wildfires are not once-in-a-lifetime events.
He knows they feed on fuel. He knows how they travel. He knows what they can do.
On the fateful evening of Nov. 28 that knowledge likely saved his life and that of his wife.
The couple live in 1,500-square-foot, single-story home in Hemlock Hills on a steep hill off the Spur between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.
On Tuesday morning when the sun rose, four houses were still standing in Hemlock Hills, more than 20 were burned to the foundation. That Loveland’s home was one of the four is not happenstance.
Loveland knows he should have been long gone when the fire hit — “don’t hesitate, evacuate,” he advises — but the television news that evening had indicated “there was nothing burning in town. Everything was cool. They have their eyes on it,” he said.
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. From his days supervising controlled burns in the park, Loveland knew those embers are usually harmless but also a sign of situations that aren’t.
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.
“I said, ‘We don’t have time to deal with it. Let’s go home,'” Loveland said.
There was already no way out and the fire was just getting started.
Homes dotting the top of the ridge were soon ablaze. Other residences below them were also on fire. Smoke was everywhere.
More problems. A tree limb fell over the power lines, knocking out electricity to the home and plunging the interior into darkness. The smoke detectors were going bonkers, adding to the overall chaos as Kathaleen Loveland raced about the home trying to get important items and documents together.
“I had a backup generator, but I had a problem with it that I didn’t know about until then,” David Loveland said. “I had only the water pressure that was left in the hose, and I needed that to protect the propane tank.”
That left Loveland with a leaf blower with three batteries, a hoe and a nearly powerless water hose. But, he had also prepared.
For 10 years Loveland had been working an hour here or there to clear the brush on his property. He had been methodically pulling dead branches and bushes away.
“The goal was to clear all three acres,” he said as he walked around the home this past Wednesday. “You can see I haven’t gotten to this ridge yet, but look at the difference over here.”
The difference was significant. One area showed the charred remains of bushes and undergrowth; in the other, tree bark was singed but the ground area was much cleaner. The amount of work it must have taken was substantial.
“I have been trying to reduce the fuel-loading in the woods,” he said, “trying to keep open space clear around the house. Look, we live in a woods. 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.”
A simple, if labor-intensive strategy; but one, Loveland said, that saved the couple’s lives.
“I am convinced it gave us a chance,” he said. “Without having done this, it (the work he did that night) would not have mattered. Our house would just be one more foundation left out here.”
It was still a wild night for Loveland. 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. That wind was tremendous,” he said. “Then it was back to the back (where the propane tank sat) 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 was able to 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 was able to 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. More blowing. More hoeing. At about 4 a.m. a more substantial rain came, giving Loveland a chance to sleep.
When asked if he felt a sense of accomplishment at that point, he responded, “Oh yeah.
“When that rain came, I said, ‘Yes!’,” he said, making a fist and jerking his elbow back like a baseball slugger who’d just hit a grand slam. “Now, I’m having a beer and going to bed.”
He has been walking about what is left of his neighborhood since that night. That string of houses on the ridge is 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 the Loveland’s 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, he said.
Loveland knows of no fatalities in the Hemlock Hills.
The Loveland’s had the house for sale and were planning to move to Florida before the fire and it did not affect their decision to move, but he said the 17,000-acre blaze should be a lesson for people as they rebuild here.
“This (fire management) was my occupation for most of my adult life,” he said. “I am trained to know fire behavior. Clearing the underbrush worked for me on these three acres; but, if you are talking about people in Chalet Village, you can pick up sticks on your little quarter acre all day long and it is not going to make any difference.”
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 and that leaf litter burns. You are living in an area that is available to burn every year. We’ll get a fresh round of leaf litter down. This will all be ready to burn again within three years.”
Read or Share this story: http://knoxne.ws/2hUY8di
(c)2016 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Visit the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.) at www.knoxnews.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.