Above, Wintergreen Fire & Rescue Chief Curtis Sheets chats with BRL Digital Media Director Tommy Stafford about their plans in the event a Gatlinburg scenario played out here on the mountain. Click play above to watch.
Nelson County, Virginia
With the recent wildfires in Gatlinburg still in the news coupled with the outbreak we experienced here in the Blue Ridge in late November, many are asking the question what would happen at Wintergreen if a similar event occurred here.
I asked that question of Wintergreen Fire & Rescue Chief Curtis Sheets during the Gatlinburg fires and the ones burning here in the Blue Ridge. He recently took a few minutes to discuss their plan of action.
Below is the verbatim letter Chief Sheets sent to those living at and nearby to Wintergreen:
Dear Wintergreen owners and neighbors;
Many of you have reached out via email and social media regarding the recent fires in Gatlinburg TN and the relevance to Wintergreen. First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers are with the many families affected by the tragic fires. Our utmost respect goes out to our fellow firefighters who fought valiantly to save life and property under horrific conditions.
The similarities between Wintergreen and Gatlinburg are certainly significant. In fact, in many of the preliminary reports I have read, if one were to insert “Wintergreen VA” everywhere it reads “Gatlinburg TN” the story continues to make sense. Our topography, structure load, proximity to National Park land, and even the insurance rating of our fire department are all nearly identical.
Wintergreen long ago identified the need to communicate real-time information to owners and guests regarding urgent safety needs. Using the Wintergreen Alert system and the Wintergreen Resort switchboard we can reach thousands of people within minutes. In fact, our last “priority message” regarding a forest fire in Lovingston was confirmed by over 1,000 people in less than 10 minutes.
Since 2008 Wintergreen has participated in a fire risk reduction program referred to as “Firewise Communities USA”. Firewise Communities is a program managed by the National Fire Protection Association which is designed to recognize those communities at risk for a significant wildfire and attempt to mitigate hazards.
In 2010, Wintergreen Fire Department and the Virginia Department of Forestry collaborated on the creation of a very detailed “Pre-fire Attack Plan”. This working document identifies all partners and parameters associated with wildfire at Wintergreen.
Much like Gatlinburg, Wintergreen can be adversely affected by wildfire management strategy on National Park property. We have a wonderful working relationship with our local Park Rangers however we will likely never change the National Park Service policy regarding how aggressively fires are fought within the Park.
In full candor, much of the fire planning at Wintergreen has been built upon the industry accepted theory that East-coast fires are nothing like West-coast fires. Humidity levels of ground fuel, prevailing winds, average temperatures, etc. are all markedly different in our region and therefore it has always been said that fires here would move at a more manageable pace than those we often see on the news out West. The Gatlinburg fire certainly brings a new data-set to the table which I’m certain will affect planning as we move forward.
In the event of a large-scale fire Wintergreen Fire Department staff will make the decision regarding evacuation quickly. Once the decision has been made all available resources will be assigned to facilitating evacuation.
We do have an evacuation plan in place which involves crossing approximately 350’ of National Park property. The route begins on Laurel Springs Drive and ends on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Wintergreen has for over 20 years petitioned the National Park Service to allow us to build a gravel road which would be covered by mulch and secured with a locked gate. This is in-fact the only reasonable way out of Wintergreen if for some reason Wintergreen Drive becomes blocked. The National Park is indeed a very precious resource, and therefore the Park Service is steadfast in their commitment to environmental preservation. Wintergreen is not seeking any type of easement for our emergency exit. Rather, we simply seek an administrative approval which can be approved/rejected annually based up on our compliance with regulations. With every change of administration in Washington D.C. the process starts over, but we keep trying. Regardless, if we need to exit emergently to the Parkway, we will do so.
As your Chief of Fire & Rescue I’m tasked with making the community as safe as possible. I will commit to you the Gatlinburg fires will cause a complete evaluation of all wildfire plans. With this new data available, we must validate all existing policies and make adjustments as indicated by evidence. We will work closely with the Virginia Department of Forestry as they collaborate with their peers in Tennessee. When appropriate, we may even visit Gatlinburg to see first-hand the devastation and hope to learn from our counterparts how they feel we could be better prepared.
What I will not do, (what I have never done) is tell you not to worry about fires at Wintergreen. We shouldn’t be afraid, however we should all be vigilant. Prevention responsibilities are shared equally between all persons who spend time at Wintergreen, and all persons who live or visit the valley floors and/or Blue Ridge Parkway. The old adage says, “there’s safety in numbers.” It will take us all to keep Wintergreen safe. I have no doubt we can achieve the goal.