Wears Valley brush fire: How emergency response improves over the years

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PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (WATE) — After every fire, firefighters take a look at how they responded, what worked and what didn’t work.

Tony Watson, Pigeon Forge Fire Chief, said that’s what his department did after the Gatlinburg wildfires in 2016, but it’s also what they have done for every fire since, including the recent 60-acre brush fire in Wears Valley.

He said that a lot has changed over the past three years, but one of the areas with the most improvement has been communication.

“One of the things that we’ve learned in working the larger brush fires that we do in the county is having that Emergency Operations Center,” Watson said.

Watson was the lead commander during the Wears Valley brush fire, but dozens of fire departments and emergency crews came to help with the response.

Having an EOC out in the field helps coordinates all the different personnel working the scene, which helps keep the communication clear.

Watson said they have also learned to keep the communication limited to first responders involved.

“We actually have a cache of radios, that each out of county agency that came to the fire, we handed them a radio and said ‘this is the channel you’re going to be operating on,’ so they can communicate directly with us,” Watson said.

He said Sevier County as a whole has improved how to communicate to residents in the area.

Watson said they used Red Alert or the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System to notify residents when fire crews felt the public’s safety was becoming a risk.

He said that they have also learned to involve the Sheriff’s Office or Highway Patrol sooner, to keep traffic in the surrounding areas flowing and to keep onlookers away from the scene so they don’t get in the way for first responders.

He said he learned something new from the Wears Valley fire as well: Communicate to the public information officer, media or social media as soon as possible.

Watson said erroneous information started to circle around on social media before fire crews were able to get out what was accurate.

He said there were other troubles that firefighters ran into during the Wears Valley fire response.

Two of those involved the terrain, but they are also issues they often run into: Narrow roads without turn-arounds and no fire hydrants.

He said that many areas of Sevier County, and even across the country, come across those issues.

A fix could be to make those communities Firewise, according to Watson.

Being Firewise certified means you’ve applied and gone through the steps to make your home and community safer from wildfires.

One of those steps is to make sure your house or street has an area for fire trucks to turn around in.

Watson said there are several ways homeowners can make the outside and inside of their home safer from wildfires, without spending a lot of money.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the following are some steps to take to make your home Firewise:

  • Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris and pine needles that could catch embers.
  • Replace or repair any loose or missing shingles or roof tiles to prevent ember penetration.
  • Reduce embers that could pass through vents in the eaves by installing 1/8 inch metal mesh screening.
  • Clean debris from exterior attic vents and install 1/8 inch metal mesh screening to reduce embers.
  • Repair or replace damaged or loose window screens and any broken window screens or boxed-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating.
  • Move any flammable material away from wall exteriors – mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles, firewood piles – anything that can burn. Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches.
  • Clear vegetation from under large stationary propane tanks.
  • Create fuel breaks with driveways, walkways/paths, patios, and decks.
  • Keep lawns and native grasses mowed to a height of four inches.
  • Remove ladder fuels (vegetation under trees) so a surface fire cannot reach the crowns.  Prune trees up to six to ten feet from the ground; for shorter trees do not exceed 1/3 of the overall tree height.
  • Space trees to have a minimum of eighteen feet between crowns with the distance increasing with the percentage of slope.
  • Tree placement should be planned to ensure the mature canopy is no closer than ten feet to the edge of the structure.
  • Tree and shrubs in this zone should be limited to small clusters of a few each to break up the continuity of the vegetation across the landscape.

To read the full list of steps to make your home Firewise, click here.

Watson said that any Pigeon Forge resident can call the fire department at 865-429-7381 to have a firefighter take a walk-through of your home for Firewise improvement tips.

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