Hickory Nut Gorge residents grateful to firefighters

Community holding fundraiser to support local agencies

Fred McCormick, fred@blackmountainnews.com

The 7,000-acre Party Rock Fire that threatened the Hickory Nut Gorge and surrounding areas for most of November triggered plenty of emotion in residents of the five communities in the area.

Gratitude will be the emotion expressed at the Party Rock Fire Thank You Celebration & Fundraiser at the Rumbling Bald Resort on Saturday, Jan. 21.

Honoring area firefighters will be the resort, the town of Lake Lure, Chimney Rock Village, The Chamber of Hickory Nut Gorge, Chimney Rock State Park and Lake Lure Classical Academy.

Crews look on as smoke from November's Party Rock Fire fills the air.

Hickory Nut Gorge Foundation, which oversees an endowment for the gorge, will disperse money raised to the fire departments in the area.

“When the fire happened there was this natural progression of ‘hey, how can we support these fire departments that did so much to mitigate this fire,’” said Valerie Hoffman, foundation member and town of Lake Lure public information officer. “The fire departments were in charge of structure protection, which was obviously critically important.”

The fire was the worst Lake Lure has seen, according to mayor Bob Keith, who is also a volunteer firefighter with Fairfield Mountains Volunteer Fire Department, one of several in the gorge.

"The fire spread so rapidly," he said. "It turned into three fires by the early evening."

Keith decided quickly to focus all of his attention on his mayoral duties instead of joining his fellow firefighters on the front line. 

"We had daily meetings four times a day," he said. "At each of those meeting, the mayor of Chimney Rock, Peter O'Leary, and myself were there to see what we could do to protect the interests of the town and help manage what was going on."

Hoffman, a resident of Lake Lure, was one of many people in the area forced to evacuate their homes during the fire. But her position with the town required her to remain close.

“As the town’s public information officer I was the pipeline of information between the forest service and our local folks,” she said. “Social media became the go-to place for our locals to get information quickly - information they couldn’t get from the national news.”

It’s also important to recognize the efforts of residents and businesses in Lake Lure and Chimney Rock Village, Hoffman said. Firefighters from around the country fighting the fire described them as the most “gracious and grateful group of people” they had ever encountered, Hoffman said. “It was all very touching,” she said.

Keith echoed Hoffman's sentiment, saying it "felt good to see the community's response" to the fire. 

In addition to honoring area firefighters, the fundraiser will also recognize businesses and volunteers in the area. The resort’s willingness to host the event is just the latest example of the generosity shown by members of the community, Hoffman said.

“Rumbling Bald Resort is donating its venue for this event, and they’ve taken an active lead in organizing the logistics,” she said. “That resort and its residents were evacuated longer than any of us, so they were impacted on so many levels. Yet they immediately turned around and gave of themselves by doing this. That speaks a lot to the nature of the personalities in the community here.”

The fundraiser will include a cocktail reception, heavy hors d'oeuvres and entertainment. The event is free, but space is limited, so those interested in attending must RSVP by Jan. 16, Hoffman said.

Can't make it but still want to help?Donations can be made to the Hickory Nut Gorge Foundation at hngfoundation.org or via P.O. Box 783, Lake Lure, NC, 28711.

The Party Rock Fire Thank You Celebration & Fundraiser

When: 5 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 16

Where: Rumbling Bald Resort in Lake Lure

RSVP: (828) 694-3016 by Jan. 16