The story below is a reprint from USA Today, but it’s such an important one we wanted to share it with you. We at Cal OES advocate all year long the establishment of a 100′ defensible space around your home in the event of a wildfire. This story about David Loveland and his wife Kathaleen, illustrates exactly why that space is so critical to saving your home, and possibly your life. (Featured Image Credit: CBS News)
PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — 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.
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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 how they feed on fuel. He knows how they travel. He knows how they destroy.
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, just four houses still were 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 until they 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, while usually harmless, can be a sign of situations that aren’t.
The couple got in the car and headed out the winding, narrow road only to be blocked by a fallen tree.
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“I said, ‘We don’t have time to deal with it. Let’s go home,’” Loveland said.
Homes dotting the ridge above them were soon ablaze. Dwellings below them caught fire. Smoke was everywhere.
A tree limb fell over some power lines, leaving them in darkness. As the smoke detectors went bonkers, Kathaleen Loveland raced to gather important items and documents.
“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 battery-operated leaf blower, a hoe and a nearly powerless water hose. But, he had also prepared.
For 10 years Loveland had spent an hour here or there clearing brush on his property.
“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 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, trying to keep open space clear around the house,” he said. “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 strategy but one 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. Scorch marks a few yards from his doorstep tell the tale.
“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 spotted trouble on one side of the house while David worked 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 their 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 took 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 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.”
The Lovelands were preparing to move to Florida before the fire and still plan to relocate, but he said the 17,000-acre blaze should be a lesson for people as they rebuild.
“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.”
Follow Steve Ahillen on Twitter: @sahillen