Covenant College provides a scale for the scope of the Lookout Mountain wildfire in this shot snapped Friday by federal information officer Warren Bielenberg. Feds were in charge of the firefighting ops because the 20 acres on fire were all within Chattanooga-Chickamauga National Military Park.
On Saturday, the total number of firefighters battling a 20.8-acre wildfire on Lookout Mountain above Trenton had reached 63, but by early afternoon they were pretty sure they had it on the run.
By this morning, Monday, officials reported the fire was 95 percent contained, and plans had been made to send the bulk of the workforce home on Thursday.
“Fingers crossed, this thing will be tied in and we’ll have it done relatively soon,” said Incident Commander Paul Varnedoe, interviewed on Saturday.
Varnedoe (left), a Cleveland, Tenn.-based U.S. Forest Service firefighter whose day job is at the Cherokee National Forest, said that a line had been cleared around the fire to keep it from spreading, and the worst of the flames had been contained, but that “hot spots” –heavy logs that were still burning and other small fires—remained here and there and would for several days.
“We’ll have to go in and start putting out those little hot spots,” he said. “We can just babysit it then.” Varnedoe estimated the “babysitting” work should last another week or so, depending on weather and the stubbornness of the fire. Rains Saturday had helped the situation though lightning had deterred the firefighting operation briefly, he said.
The firefighting operation is headquartered at the West Brow Fire Department on Scenic Highway, and West Brow volunteer firefighters are aiding in the effort. The hard-working Trenton-based rangers of the Georgia Forestry Commission have been in it since the first and continue to fight the fire as these words are written.
But most of the workforce on the mountain is federal, Varnedoe explained. Though the fire, which started July 11, briefly threatened private homes in the Maggie Bluff and Frontier Bluff areas, all the acreage involved belongs to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Thus it was a National Park Service fire, NPS had called in the Forestry Service, emergency forces had been summoned from across the nation, and inside the little West Brow Fire Department The Dade Planet on Saturday found a full-scale command center with a dozen federal workers behind laptops or talking into cellphones at folding tables.
One of them was Warren Bielenberg, a federal information officer pulled out of retirement for the operation, who explained that this was an example of the federal “incident command system.”
“It’s a system of management of emergency situations and it started with the U.S. Forestry Service back in 1974,” said Bielenberg. “There was this big fire in the hills of San Diego and they brought people in from all over, and they discovered that my radio wouldn’t talk to your radio which wouldn’t talk to his radio which wouldn’t talk to that radio, and the equipment on my truck wouldn’t work on your truck.”
The incident command system seeks to avoid this Keystone-Cop style scenario by imposing a logical order on the chaos. The incident commander is appointed based on experience relevant to the emergency, explained Bielenberg, so that during an emergency operation employees might well be serving under a boss they far outrank.
The task force includes not just crews of firefighters but a timekeeper, a plans chief and support staffers to order resources, scare up lunch and make Walmart runs—and himself, an information officer, to take pictures, dispense news and keep the local press out of firefighters’ hair.
Bigger emergencies might call for 1000 firefighters and 15 information officers, said Bielenberg, but it was the same organization, just on a different scale. “All the parts are interchangeable,” he said. “It’s used by all the military and all the fire organizations and emergency responses.”
To The Planet’s outside eye, anyway, the system appeared to be working well, with West Brow volunteers and the Georgia Forestry Commission rangers seeming to coordinate pretty smoothly with the Feds. Incident Commander Varnedoe praised both local groups. “We could not have done the work we did and keep it where it was without their help,” he said.
Assembled task force at a morning briefing.
Varnedoe said the cause of the fire was still under investigation—“We know it wasn’t lightning”—and that its potential to escalate into something much worse had spurred the decision to call in so large a force.
"We had some great help from some people from Arkansas, another crew from the Georgia Forestry Commission,” said Varnedoe. “When the hand crews came in they did such a good job—they were able to find a way around the fire, control it.”
He explained that most of the firefighting had had to be done manually. “It’s all hand work. We could not put dozers over there because it’s just too steep a country,” said Varnedoe. “There’s big boulders that could fall over and really get someone hurt.”
Information Officer Bielenberg demonstrated with a map how the fire was controlled by encircling it. “They used the park trails and the power line and got a line around it on three sides. Yesterday they cut a trail down this way,” he said. “They did a fire and they burned the fuel out from where the fire line was to where they had the line cut in.”
Meanwhile, he said, the Georgia Forestry Commission got permission from homeowners to clear brush around their houses, establishing “defensible space.” Volunteer firefighters stood sentry around the homes in case the wildfire made it that far.
During the mop-up operation, water is being dropped on hot spots from a helicopter, or run from the West Brow station via 2000-foot fire hoses from huge portable water tanks the firefighters for some reason call “pumpkins.”
Bielenberg says local residents worried about wildfires might want to check out a federal information program called “Firewise.” “You don’t have many fires. We’re blessed with getting 50 or 60 inches of rain a year,” he said. “[But] now we’re nine or 10 inches behind so it’s abnormally dry.”
Readers may learn about the federal program at firewise.org.
Coincidentally, Dade Executive Chairman Ted Rumley had pointed out only at the July 7 meeting of the county commission the not-generally-known fact that 300 acres of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park lie within Dade County. Rumley said then that local resident John Logan had stumbled across ruined Civil War monuments by accident, deep within the woods.
Rumley and other local history buffs speculated that the park acres could be a tourism draw for the county, but the problem was with access, with the only road to the land an old one from Reflection Riding in Chattanooga.
It was only four days later that the wildfire drew more dramatic attention to the Dade acreage within the federal park.
Editor's Note: All the photographs in this article except for those of Paul Varnedoe and the incident room were taken by Warren Bielenberg. The Planet admires them excessively and is humbly grateful for them.