COAL BANK RIDGE — Marilyn and Mike Cavell remember well the day in 2012 when fire raced up the slope from Coal Bank Hollow Road toward their house in this heavily wooded neighborhood at the foot of Brush Mountain.
“A lot of people that live here now did not experience that,” Marilyn said. “We lived here, and it was real frightening to see that fire coming.”
It took 14 firefighters and six apparatus to get the fast moving blaze under control, Blacksburg Fire Code Official Wayne Garst said. By the time it was out, it had scorched nearly three acres.
Today, Marilyn leads the Coal Bank Ridge Firewise program committee. The neighborhood of 35 homes just outside Blacksburg is one of 1,500 such sites across the country — 49 of them in Virginia — recognized by the nonprofit National Fire Protection Association for taking action to prevent losses from wildfire.
And this year, Coal Bank Ridge went a step further, qualifying as one of seven Firewise communities nationally to be named as a “site of excellence” for its mitigation efforts. It is the only site east of the Mississippi River to be so designated.
“They are a great example of what Firewise is,” said Brad Wright of the Virginia Department of Forestry. “And the effort they’ve been putting into the program is above and beyond.”
Under the two-year pilot program, sites of excellence get up to $2,000 in grants to do neighborhood-wide fire safety projects and education events, Marilyn said.
On top of the fire mitigation plans, checklists and events required by the basic Firewise designation, sites of excellence do intensive reporting, Marilyn said. Coal Bank Ridge has even had an assessment by the national organization.
More than 60 percent of the neighborhood’s households joined the effort and homeowners have done volunteer hours on projects such as replacing wood mulch with stone in landscaping beds, thinning trees, removing leaves, dead trees and brush and more.
Dressed in denim overalls in the 83-degree heat, Mike Cavell was working on his own fire protection list on a recent Friday afternoon. Taking a pickax to the drought-hardened ground, the retired civil engineer was building a gravel-lined campfire pit outside the 30-foot “zone of protection” around the home he shares with Marilyn. That area is crucial to protecting a home from wildfire encroachment, according to Firewise guidelines.
The Cavells have also pruned or removed fire friendly shrubs and plantings from around the 5-foot perimeter of their foundation. They keep their grass trimmed — four inches tall is the Firewise recommendation — and they keep their landscaping mulch hydrated by turning it regularly, Marilyn said.
They even have built a walking path through the wooded section of their property, which creates a fire break down slope from their home to slow any blaze that might start below them.
Mike said he learned firsthand in 2012 that fires “accelerate coming up the hill.”
“We do have areas very at risk from wildfire, and this program gets the communities and the citizens educated to the risk,” Brad Wright said. “Overall that makes our jobs easier when there is a wildfire if their homes are already properly protected.”
Two years ago, all of Southern Appalachia got a grim reminder of the dangers. In circles concerned about wildfire, it goes by a one-word name: Gatlinburg.
Waking up to wildfire risks
An old fashioned tourist city on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, as well as parts of surrounding Sevier County, were ravaged by fire that spread from the park on Nov. 28, 2016.
Drought combined with 60-mph sustained winds turned what had been a contained woodland fire into a major conflagration that killed 14 people, injured 200 and damaged or destroyed 2,500 buildings. Property losses were estimated at $500 million and recovery costs at about $2 billion.
While residents of Western states expect and prepare for major wildfires every year, Gatlinburg took the Southeast by surprise.
Wayne Garst, the Blacksburg fire official, has served as a volunteer fire fighter for 35 years.
“Until that Gatlinburg fire happened, I never thought it could have happened here,” Garst said. “We have basically the same terrain in our mountains here, and if the conditions are right, it can just flat out go. I think it woke a lot of people up.”
Virginia’s been working on fire protection partnerships since the 1980s, Brad Wright said. When the National Fire Protection Association started Firewise USA in the early 2000s, Virginia’s forestry department was quick to partner with it.
As the state wildfire mitigation specialist covering the Roanoke and New River valleys, Wright has been recruiting neighborhoods and housing developments for the Firewise program since 2007, with a particular focus on Montgomery County and Brush Mountain.
“There are hundreds to thousands of homes on Brush Mountain and the same kind of fuel loading and terrain that Gatlinburg had,” Wright said.
With the adjacent Jefferson National Forest with its campgrounds, trails and recreation areas like Pandapas Pond, “it’s highly populated and highly recreated,” Wright said. “Since I started with this part of the program in ’07, that’s been my number one area to work in.”
Coal Bank Ridge was among the first housing developments to join Firewise, followed later by surrounding communities, Preston Forest and Laurel Ridge.
“We’re all in this together,” Marilyn said. “Every one of us is trying to do what we can to make our home as safe from fire as we can. The whole premise of the program is, rather than just let the fire come and have the firefighters save us all and our homes, to take personal responsibility.”
This year, an exceptionally dry summer has put more than half of Virginia, including the Roanoke and New River valleys into a moderate drought.
Pasture and crop lands have suffered some damage, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
And on days with very low humidity, fire danger rises, too.
In response, Franklin and Montgomery counties instituted open-air burn bans in September, making all outdoor fires in those areas illegal.
That means the Cavells will have to wait until the drought breaks to try out their new fire pit.