ALCOA, Tenn. (Nov. 22, 2016) – For about 24 hours, the Rev. David Fugatt watched the big fire as it lapped the woodlands surrounding his parsonage in Walland, Tenn.
“Looking out the kitchen window and seeing flames was not fun,” says the pastor of Walland United Methodist Church. Fugatt was uneasy, even though firefighters who were “back burning” and tending a fire that had already singed hundreds of acres assured him of his safety.
However, the wind shifted on Friday, Nov. 18, “and smoke started pouring into the house.” Fugatt and his wife threw in the towel and went to stay at his mother’s home in Knoxville. They returned on Sunday morning for worship, then left again as smoke continued to engulf the parsonage.
“You almost couldn’t see the house from the church,” Fugatt says. The parsonage is located a few feet behind the church on a hill.
As forest fires continue to rage through eight southeastern states, burning more than 120,000 total acres, members and churches in Holston Conference have their own stories to share about close calls and outreach efforts. Most of the fires are related to dry conditions and a regional drought; some were started by arsonists.
Fugatt said he planned to return to the Walland parsonage on Tuesday (Nov. 22). The Daily Times reported Nov. 21 that the fire was 75 percent contained after burning more than 1,100 acres in Blount County.
Camp Wesley Woods, located five miles southeast of Walland, remains safe near the little town of Townsend, according to Director Tony Lea.
“It’s hard to believe, but at Camp Wesley Woods last Friday, you would almost not know a fire was within a few miles away,” Lea said. "[There was] little smoke until late afternoon and a seemingly crystal clear blue sky … We continue to monitor for this fire or any other.”
Located about seven miles south of Walland, Tuckaleechee United Methodist Church was open for a few days as a shelter for potential evacuees. No guests were received, said the Rev. Richard Rudesill.
SPARKS IN EGGLESTON
The Rev. Kim Goddard and the Rev. Jim Goddard have a home they call “Riversong” about two miles south of Eggleston, Va.
On Nov. 10, sparks from the tracks of a Norfolk Southern Railroad train caused the mountain to ignite near the Goddard home.
“I got a call at work from my mom saying three local fire departments were on their way to put it out,” said Kim Goddard, superintendent of 116 churches in the Wytheville District. “The fire burned for three days, and the forest service brought in a bulldozer to cut a fire line. “
The fire came within 1,000 feet of the house, “so we were carefully watching the wind,” she said. “The only time I was really concerned was Thursday night when the fire started coming down the mountain.”
Ultimately, the fire was defeated and the Goddard family was able to breathe easier.
“Wytheville District has had plenty of smoke and smog from other fires,” she said, “but we have been fortunate not to have major outbreaks.”
FLAMES IN RISING FAWN
The Rev. Jodie Ihfe and her two daughters, ages 2 and 4, have suffered from bronchitis over the last two weeks. The smoke from the fire near Rising Fawn, Ga., has not only made her family sick. Several volunteer firefighters in her congregation are also involved in a round-the-clock effort to distinguish the forest fire, including Rodney Ross, a local fire chief, and Doc Nichols.
“Several church members are assisting the Georgia Forestry Service -- working at their jobs all day and then fighting fires after work and on the weekends,” said the pastor of New Salem United Methodist Church.
Carol and Julian Wilson saw 11 of their 13 acres blackened as firefighters started controlled fires to “back burn” and protect nearby homes.
“The fire started about a half-mile north of our property and then came across our property,” said Carol Wilson, a member at New Salem UMC. “But the trees are fine. The fire was low-burning and only burned the small, scrubby growth. We’ll have a beautiful spring.”
The Wilsons have involved their New Salem congregation in outreach efforts led by New Beginnings Bible Church, where firefighters have been congregating and sharing meals over the past weeks.
“Our church got together food and supplies for one of the meals last week,” says Ihfe. “Other volunteers from New Salem went to cook breakfast.”
Last week, New Salem collected hand sanitizer, wet wipes, ibuprofen, and eye drops for firefighters working on Lookout Mountain.
In mid-October, Rising Fawn United Methodist Church cooked and served a large dinner for firefighters battling a blaze in Dade County, Ga.
Complete coverage of Sevier Co. wildfires
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.