Chief: Gatlinburg-type fire could happen here

Steve Jones says town is "lucky" to have not experienced anything like Gatlinburg fires, addresses department's efforts fighting Party Rock Fire

Fred McCormick

Given current drought conditions (recent rains notwithstanding), Black Mountain has been fortunate to avoid the kind of fire that burned 17,000 acres in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, town fire chief Steve Jones told Black Mountain aldermen recently.

“It could’ve happened right here in the last two months," he said. Noting the many communities on the Buncombe County side of the recent Party Rock fire near Lake Lure, Jones said the area has been "lucky.”

Black Mountain Fire Department Engine 41 spent time during the Party Rock fire protecting this house in Broad River.

His crews saw first-hand how quickly wildfire can spread. As the Party Rock Fire climbed into southeast Buncombe County last month, the department’s Engine 41 was on the front lines in Broad River, protecting a house from burning down. The town's firefighters did their part well, Jones said.

During dry times, fires can spread quickly in the wooded terrain surrounding Black Mountain, the chief noted. Residents can minimize their risks by taking a few precautions, he said. He cited a website - - that presents homeowners with a questionnaire to help them find out how protected their house is from fire. People building new homes may want to consider installing sprinkler systems, he said.

“They’re only about $8 per square foot,” he said. “That’s not a lot of money when you consider what people spend for houses these days.”

House fires spread at a much more rapid rate than they did when Jones began his career as a firefighter in 1980, he said.

“When I first started my career, when we had a house fire we had about 17 minutes to get out of that building before it burned down,” he said. “Now it’s about three, due to lightweight construction… That’s not much time.”

People should also be aware of drought conditions and fire risks, the chief said.

“As of now there is not much danger of fire, with the rain we’ve had recently,” he said. “But it all really depends on how much precipitation we get over any period of time.”

Firefighters from Black Mountain captured pictures like this from the front lines of the Party Rock Fire in November.

The Party Rock Fire destroyed 2,400 acres of state park land and 4,600 acres of private land last month. Six hundred and fifty-six acres were in Buncombe County, in the Broad River fire district. "That's where the Black Mountain Fire Department and other departments in the county went and made our stand against that fire,” Jones said.

The cost of fighting the Party Rock Fire was $7 million, Jones told Black Mountain aldermen during their board meeting Dec. 5. Efforts cost so much because of the use of helicopters and C-130 tanker airplanes, he said. The Black Mountain department invested around 705 firefighting hours and 273 equipment hours to combat the blaze.

“One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that, in order to go fight those fires, we have to have the same training as the (N.C. Forest Service) guys do,” he said.

Jones praised the efforts of all firefighters involved in the Party Rock Fire. He told the board he was "awfully proud" of his crew.

"Everybody did a good job," he said.