By Bob Keith

Mayor of Lake Lure, NC

A puff of smoke. Then another. Get the binoculars. Fire on Party Rock. Call 911. Seconds later, sirens wailing and echoing throughout the Gorge. The trail of smoke and fire began climbing rapidly up Rumbling Bald. Within minutes, fiery debris began tumbling down the escarpment plunging hundreds of feet to the boulders and vegetation below. As night approached and the fire could be seen more distinctly, it consumed all the newly fallen leaves after some 48 days of lack of rain and record setting dry conditions. This was Saturday, November 5th. We watched the raging fire spread throughout the night and split into three distinct fires: one continuing to chase to the top of Rumbling Bald, one heading west toward Chimney Rock Village and one heading north toward Rumbling Bald Resort.

Because of the nature, conditions and seriousness of the fire, the NC Forest was summoned immediately. They appeared on Sunday with helicopters dropping water and retardants while simultaneously setting up a base camp at Town Hall and Morse Park. The expectation was that they would be here for some time. Safety, structure protection, containment, suppression and effective communications became the order of each day. Plan for the worst and hope for the best became the daily mantra. Multiple fire containment lines were established within the perimeter of structures west of Boys Camp Road, north of Chimney Rock Village, up through Bat Cave, north along Route 9 up to the Shumont Road area, back over through Grey Rock Estates and finally sealing off Rumbling Bald Resort (Grey Rock to King Ranch to the Quail Cove section of the Resort). The fire fueled by continuously falling leaves and burning dead trees, breached many firebreaks as the fire doubled in size each of six straight days. The situation was intense, even perilous. Without exaggeration, because of dry conditions, variable but strong winds at times, the mountainous terrain, the continuous falling leaves (fuel), Chimney Rock Village, homes in Bat Cave and the Shumont Road area and the entire Rumbling Bald Resort were in jeopardy of total loss and devastation. We declared a “State of Emergency” to permit better management and control.

Working in coordination with the Forest Service, Lake Lure Fire Chief Ron Morgan and Rutherford County Fire Marshall Roger Hollifield called on fire departments from around NC to come to the area for structure protection. We had to shut down roads and evacuate homes to allow for the Fire Service and firefighters to freely perform their duties without competing priorities. All told, we had Forest Service personnel from 25 states, the NC Park Service and firefighters from 180 towns/cities across NC totaling over 1000 dedicated and well-trained personnel. Firefighters worked two twelve hour shifts (500 out on the fire lines at any one time) with many of the Forest Service management team going 18 – 24 hour days. Evaluation of risk and decisions had to be made continuously. With God’s help, each early morning daily report included “no deaths, no injuries, no structures lost”. Amen!

We turned the corner on the fire 2 weeks from its inception. A team from the Oregon Forest Service arrived on the 19th to replace the exhausted NC team to manage the mop up, repair and rehabilitation operations. It was almost a month from first spark to the finish.

I cannot give enough praise to all who were involved or affected by this potentially life changing event. The 25 state Fire Service organizations, all the fire departments from around the state, the local, county and state police organizations and county EMS services all are to be applauded for the role they played. Our local fire departments: Bills Creek, Chimney Rock, Fairfield Mountains, Lake Lure, as well as Bat Cave and Broad River all were integral to saving our collective communities. And what a response from all the Auxiliaries and vast number of volunteers who spent long days feeding the firefighters, bagging lunches and assisting in the many support activities associated with a major event of this type. Donations of water, power drinks, medical supplies and food came in from all around the area. So much so that we had to find a place to warehouse the excess. By the way, after our threat was controlled, the excess was taken to Gatlinburg. Inns, motels, churches responded by providing services for the evacuees. Coordination, cooperation and excellent communications prevailed. We came together and community spirit soared. The Fire Service organizations of NC and Oregon could not say enough good words about our people and the receptive and “can do” attitude of all involved. Peter O’Leary and I, as representatives of our two towns, could not be prouder of everyone who helped or who accepted the inconvenience of evacuations and closed roads. In retrospect, looking back at the bottom line: 1) safety of firefighters and residents was maintained with only a few minor injuries and 2) no structures were lost. Pretty impressive outcome!

Now that the smoke on the mountain has cleared, we look forward to a very challenging and productive 2017. Major projects include construction of a walkway connector between the Flowering Bridge and Chimney Rock Village, improving high speed communications throughout the Gorge, continuing development of the GreenLine, resolving the Lodge on Lake Lure issue, repairing the generator at the dam, expanding the Buffalo Creek Trail System connection to Eagle Rock, analyzing the feasibility of connecting Boys Camp Road to Rumbling Bald Resort for emergency purposes, updating the Town Center Plan and generally expanding our commercial base in Town.

Happy and Blessed New Year to ALL! Make 2017 the best ever.

Photos by Steve Earnest