Crispy around the edges, Chimney Rock celebrates spring

Rutherford County Symphony opens visitor season in front of 'dramatic view'

Fred McCormick

There was plenty of lush vegetation behind the Rutherford County Symphony on May 13 when its performance closed this year’s SpringGo Fest, an annual event that launches Chimney Rock’s busy visitor season. If you didn't know otherwise, you wouldn't have been able to tell that the Party Rock fire Nov. 5-28 loomed large over this very spot, forcing the village to evacuate for 10 days.

For Chimney Rock residents and merchants who will never forget the incident, this year’s SpringGo felt like a new beginning. One of those people is April Sotille, whose house missed the 7,000-acre Party Rock fire by just a few feet.

“All of the kudzu is coming back, so you really can’t tell there was a fire there,” she said of the land behind her home. “I had to replace the bushes the firemen had to cut down. But I was glad they cut them down."

Sotille’s house was directly in the path of the fire. Within 15 minutes on Nov. 5, she loaded her car with her four cats and her most valuable things. She didn’t expect to have a home to come back to.

“A firefighter sent me a picture of the fire coming down the mountain toward my house, and I had no idea it was so close,” she said. “I knew (the village) was in danger. One of the cops said to me the day of the evacuation that they didn’t expect Chimney Rock to be here in the morning.

“We were supposed to have very high winds that day,” she added. “I think that’s why they were thinking Chimney Rock wouldn’t be here anymore. But the winds didn’t come.”

Steve Gale’s family has owned Gale’s Chimney Rock Shop across from the Chimney Rock State Park entrance on Main for 70 years. He’s president of the Chimney Rock Village Community Development Association, the organization of local merchants that works to create a tourist-friendly atmosphere to boost the local economy. The association organizes the SpringGo Fest each year.

Gale, a member of the town’s volunteer fire department, said the fire interrupted November sales, which local merchants depend on to get them through winter. Businesses reopened after the fire, "but things were really slow,” he said.

Firefighters from around the country flew in to fight the fire, and not a single building was lost in Chimney Rock and neighboring Lake Lure, where the fire originated. The fire was like no other event Gale has experienced, including the "white hurricane" of the Blizzard of 1993, when Chimney Rock lost power amid snow, sleet, hail, lighting, thunder and 90 mph winds.

“That was the biggest disaster I’ve been through,” Gale said.

The fire ranks with the devastating flash flood that swept through Hickory Nut Gorge in 1996, he said. The flood inspired the community to come together and prompted the formation of the Community Development Association. Through grant money the association was able to get, Chimney Rock rebuilt itself.

Unlike the flood, the Party Rock Fire posed a risk to the very existence of the village, according to Chimney Rock mayor Peter O’Leary, who owns Bubba O’Leary’s General Store in the heart of the town. O’Leary has been a member of the Chimney Rock Volunteer Fire Department for more than 27 years.

“The whole thing was unprecedented for us,” O’Leary said. “We sort of had to leave in 1996 during the flood, but we never had to evacuate the entire village due to it being in imminent danger.”

Many of the merchants in Chimney Rock would have been devastated if the fire had reached their businesses, O’Leary said. Local businesses net 25-30 percent of yearly sales during the fall leaf season.

“It’s a huge season for us,” he said. “On a personal level, we were down around 30 percent in November from our previous years. It was a significant economic hit.”

After last year's close call, this year’s SpringGo felt like a “new beginning,” Sotille said. “The fact that we’re all there to celebrate this with one another makes it that much more special to us.”

“Spring is about awakening. Everything is new and fresh again,” she said. “The leaves are blooming. Nothing has really changed, and it feels like a sigh of relief.”

The event invigorated the village just as merchants head into their busy spring season. The season is an opportunity for the people of Chimney Rock to move past the fire, even though the experience will never be forgotten, Gale said.

“Spring has sprung,” he said. “If the weather cooperates, we’ll have an excellent year.”