I will be speaking at REI Knoxville again on August 31st and October 4th. The spots fill up fast, but sign up on the waiting list if you can’t get in and you will get notified of the next class. Hope to see you there.
Three years ago I was at a crux. I had resigned from my backcountry law enforcement ranger position, found out we were having a baby, and started planning our move to North Carolina. I remember reading a text from my MMA coach that he sent out to the team about training and priorities. I was in Florida on vacation, and he was right. I realized that I could no longer dedicate the time and energy to that sport, with new priorities entering my life. I left the gym, leaving part of me behind.
The same was true of my LE Ranger position. While I will never regret my decision to leave, there was a part of my soul that missed the most rewarding facet of that job…
Search and rescue.
I have been extremely fortunate to have a career filled with adventure, but there has only been one time in all those years that emotion has swept over me so strongly, I had to walk away.
Ten years ago, I was on a search for two off-trail hikers on the Spruce Flats Falls manway. I was just getting into the law enforcement division, but got teamed up with “Rambo” Ricky Varner who knew the area like the back of his hand. We located the couple, who were forced to spend the night out, and walked them out to Tremont.
There, patiently waiting, was their family, and what ensued was one of the most tender reunions I have witnessed. They don’t always end that way, but reuniting a family with their missing loved one will move the most calloused soul.
And so two years ago, fueled by a desire to be pushed by a group of hard-core guys, a penchant for the misery of off-trail rescues, and the aspiration to help others, I started recruiting a band of outdoor misfits to form an elite search and rescue team. Our mission would be simple. Prepare for the toughest missions the Smokies can offer..
With the promise of bad weather, long hours, no pay, and dangerous work, they started to trickle in one by one. First an adventurer racer, then a paddler and climber, then a helicopter pilot, a doctor, a flight medic, a Special Forces veteran, a neuroscientist, another wildlife ranger, and the list went on.
As diverse as the crew was, they all had in common the desire to help others in need and the ability to push themselves physically and mentally to build a professional team.
Every week for two years, in every weather condition, we have met at a local park to workout together, carrying our SAR packs and kettlebells, pushing the levels of fitness higher and suffering through grueling fitness standards. Every month, the team has assembled for some form of training, be it technical, swiftwater, tracking, land navigation, wilderness medical, rescue swimming, working with K-9 teams, or just a tough off-trail scramble.
Leaving the comfort of our homes and families to respond to missions, we have carried out patients on the icy Appalachian trail. Rigged up ropes to haul the injured hikers up to safety. Searched for a downed plane during hypothermia inducing weather. Assisted with joint technical rescue training. Responded to many calls only to get cancelled en route when the victim walked out. Searched the dark trails for a missing hikers. Assisted in the body recoveries of recent fatalities. And taken vacation days and cancelled personal plans to respond when called.
The team did all this, and more, to be an asset to the Search and Rescue operations of Great Smoky Mountain National Park and help those in need. The park is working constantly to overcome staffing and budget challenges. We hope to help them by pre-deploying on high volume weekends and holidays, which will reduce our response time and allow us to assist with the P-SAR (Preventative Search & Rescue) program.
The BUSAR Team is the finest group of professionals I have ever worked with. They are my friends, my mentors, my teammates, and they have helped fill that tribal void in my life. I am proud of all they have accomplished and all that they will going forward.
So today I am announcing our team website, Team BUSAR, and the exciting news that we got our non-profit status. For the last two years, except for three donors, we have paid for everything out of our own pocket. Our gear, our training, gas, meals, etc. We have done all that because we desire to help.
Now we are asking for your help.
With over 11 million visitors to the Smokies, there is a good chance that you or someone you care about may need help out there at sometime, so please consider helping us by the following:
To date, the BUSAR project has been one of the most fulfilling chapters in my life. This team would have never started without the hard work and dedication of those on the team and their support of their families. To all those involved, current and former, I give thanks.
Thanks to Chief Ranger Steve Kloster, who has been advising me since it’s formation, along with Jared St. Clair, TN District Ranger, who took over the SAR Coordinator role. Thanks also goes out to all the members of the Smokies Tech Rescue team, Kevin Moses and the cadre of B-TRTE for tech training, Chuck Hester of BLRI, and Brian Osgood and the BCRS crew for loaning us equipment for swiftwater training.
What was birthed two years ago, is now starting to stand on its own two feet. The feet wear muddy boots, the bodies are now hardened by countless workouts and training missions, and the spirit stands by waiting for the call and ready to help. The path ahead of us is clear, we are prepared, and ready for the journey. We invite all of you to join us in this mission to help others, by helping us…
Virginia SAR Conference –
The above picture was taken just moments after a glorious victory of Team Old School (my team) over Team Whippersnapper (Greg’s team). I am trying my best to teach the boy some humility, so let the record show that this is the second time I have soundly defeated him in a footrace to the control point when we arrived in the area at the same time!
In a welcome turn of events, I got to spend the first two days of the conference as a student in Rob Spieden’s land nav class. Having a break from teaching and getting to nerd out on land nav was great and Rob humors all my nerd session questions as I plan out BUSAR’s land navigation test.
The next two days for me were spent in various classes such as Advances in SAR, Training Officer Roundtable, and Supplementing USGS Maps.
Greg and I taught a SAR-Fit classe – “Creating a culture of functional fitness for SAR teams” and led morning and afternoon workout sessions throughout the 4 day conference.
On Sunday morning, I taught an emergency firestarting classe. Team “Best in Class”, headed up by the director of training for VDEM, won the firestarting challenge after a solid weekend of rain.
Networking, classes, vendors, new friends, old friends, twice a day workouts… what’s not to love about the VA SARCO. Rob Blevins, one of the coordinators and vendors, has a great deal of P-MAG’s as well, for all the shooters that read this site. Check him out at A&L Outfitters
BTRT-E – The following AAR is from Doc Cobra. He, along with Morgan, Grieco, and Benjamin attended the course in New River Gorge.
AAR: National Park Service Basic Technical Rescue Training – East (BTRT-E)
New River Gorge National River, West Virginia April 24-28, 2017
East Tennessee was well represented at the 22nd annual BTRTE in New River Gorge, West Virginia. Attendees included NPS Rangers from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Jim Cannon, Greg Grieco, Joe Kahrnoff, Ryan Rhor), Obed Wild and Scenic River (Little Bret Painter, Ricky Ryan), Big South Fork NRRA (Lauren Kopplin) and BUSAR members (NPS VIP) Doc Bill Campbell, Jason Benjamin, Andrew Morgan and Ken Miller.
Stormy, cool weather gave way to warmer days and nights with light rain, and eventually to sunshine for our concluding scenarios and group photo. Everyone camped at the Burnwood Ranger Station. The venues were the cliffs at Burnwood, the Fayetteville Volunteer Fire Department and the Endless Wall.
Instructors arrived on Saturday to begin final planning and rigging. Students checked in Sunday.
Day 1 We were welcomed at the Canyon Rim Visitors Center by IC Kevin Moses who read a welcome message from Andrew R. Hower, Deputy Chief, Emergency Services Branch, Law Enforcement, Security, and Emergency Services. The first day’s training was dedicated to basic skills and began with a gear lecture by veteran climbing guide, Instructor Andy Nichols. Andy, a climber since age 12, covered the details and safety factors of hardware and software used in rope rescue with a historical perspective. We were then split among 6 teams of 5-6 students and introduced to our Instructors who reviewed the assigned knots and ensured that each student could tie them properly. We practiced building anchor systems: wrap 3 pull 2 (webbing), high-strength tie off (rescue rope) and load sharing (cordelette). The Instructor to student ratio is an incredible 1:2.
We hiked to the cliffs for the afternoon session on basic rappelling. Our Instructors demonstrated and explained the anchors and belay systems which they had pre-rigged, then educated us in proper edge safety, protection, and rigging procedures. Each student was required to first rappel with a Recue 8, then allowed multiple repetitions with the descending devices of their choosing. Available devices included carabiners for Munter (Italian) Hitch, ATC, Grigri, brake bar rack and Scarab. Our belaying skills were honed as well.
At the bottom of the cliff we worked on our Rapid Ascent Descent System (RADS) technique.
The rain held off while we concluded a full ten-hour day of training, bagged the ropes and hiked back up to the Gazebo.
Day 2 We traveled to the nearby Fayetteville Volunteer Fire Department for our second day of basic skills training. There our instructors had rigged many ropes for multiple skills stations on Sunday before our arrival. The stations included:
1. Ascend, changeover, descend, changeover, down climb using Prusiks
2. Ascend, changeover, descend, changeover, down climb using the Texas or Frog System
3. Ascend, changeover, descend, changeover, down climb using Rapid Ascent Descent System (RADS)
4. Knot passes, going up and down, using students preferred method
5. Clearing a jammed ascender using students preferred method
6. Line changes, going up and down, using students preferred method
7. Outstanding litter rigging, patient packaging and care, litter attendant skills primer by Doc Campbell
During our lunch break, IC Kevin Moses taught us everything there is to know about Task Books (except for a sure fire way to actually get one signed off). I did learn from off-line discussions that the emphasis placed upon them varies among National Parks.
We clocked about 8 hours of intensive skills instruction and practice with a multitude of devices and techniques, greatly expanding our knowledge and enhancing our “tool boxes”. After supper and the Instructors meeting, Clark Howell and Marco Yurachek (undoubtedly THE toughest man alive) regaled us with incredible tales of human error and amazing endurance.
Day 3 Day 3 began with a superb and comprehensive presentation on Mechanical Advantage by Bill Cardwell, retired Shenandoah Ranger and the only person to have attended every single BTRT–E course. This was beautifully demonstrated at multiple stations where raising and lowering systems had been rigged around the gazebo. This included his elegant twin tensioned line system which is used by Shenandoah Mountain Rescue and has been included in the 2017 Petzl Verticality catalog. Bill also presented the results of drop tests conducted at New River Gorge, displaying the actual Petzl IDs and Prusiks containing the damaged ropes from the tests. Those punctuate his compelling argument for a twin tensioned system!
Litter rigging, raising and lowering were then demonstrated. Teams rotated through the following skills stations:
Pre-tensioned Back Tie Radium Release Hitch Tandem Prusik Belay
During the afternoon session, we learned the technique for a BC (Better Control) Pick Off of a subject stranded on rope. It is the NPS preferred method of lowering the rescuer, resources permitting, as it avoids over-tasking the rescuer who transfers the subject to his/her system with the aid of a jigger.
After three solid days of training, the team members had developed strong bonds.
At dusk we headed for the cliffs where our tireless Instructors had rigged a multitude of rappel and belay ropes over the hundred foot cliffs. Prior caving experience had prepared me for long drops in total darkness; but for most students, it was their first time to rappel in the dark. That was a very impressive achievement for those who had experienced their first rappel just 48 hours earlier! Many stations of varying difficulty were available. The gear cache now includes Petzl ASAP Mobile Fall Arrestors which conserved manpower at the belay stations and safely streamlined the process. The number of repetitions possible (3-6) depended upon the length of time one was willing to stand in line for a choice drop and how quickly one could climb back to the cliff top. Rappelling beside the New River Gorge Bridge on a starry night was one of my best times ever on rope.
Day 4 Instruction customarily starts an hour later than usual on the morning following the night evolution; but thunderstorms were predicted for Thursday afternoon so the day began at 0800. Following a safety briefing and GAR analysis, Kevin presented a brief lecture on “how to organize a rescue”. The original six teams were then combined into three. Assignments were made within each of those combined teams for a Main Line Team, a Belay Line Team and a Hasty/Medical/Litter/Edge Team. We were transported to the Endless Wall Trailhead for a 30 minute hike with equipment and litters to our assigned task locations.
The Endless Wall
Under the careful observation of our instructor cadre, the teams rigged anchors for lowering and raising evolutions with a loaded litter. Edge safety lines and protection were placed and rescue load lowering and raising systems were constructed. All students rotated through each station in the course of three evolutions during which a litter was rigged, loaded, lowered with an attendant and raised with a 3:1 haul system.
Although not every student functioned as a litter attendant, each had a turn on the Hasty/Medical/Litter/Edge Team as well as lowering/changeover/raising on the Main Line and Belay Line teams.
Ahead of the coming storm, all gear was packed at 1600h and carried back to our transportation at the trail head. Back at the Gazebo, Bill Cardwell presented a new “Y Knot” for constructing a secure and atraumatic chest harness for patient restraint in the litter. Marco then demonstrated a secure patient packaging technique for vertical rescue. A litter was suspended from the rafters and tending was practiced.
Meanwhile, the three combined teams selected, organized and packed their gear in preparation for the final scenarios with mock rescues which would occur the next morning.
Day 5 Early morning mist gave way to a clear blue sky and fair weather for our final scenarios. Team Bloody Snow (combined Red and White) aka Winter Massacre was directed to a cliff where a witness told us there had been two accidents. Our subject had been heard calling from deep in the gorge north of our location. Our first action was to locate her. Once contact was established, safety lines were placed and rappel and belay ropes were attached with high-strength tie offs around a “bomber” tree near the cliff edge. Using ASAP belays a physician and medic rappelled to the canyon floor near the victim and began assessment. She had “fallen” approximately 20 feet while climbing and landed on her left foot. She was conscious with stable vital signs but very cold. Examination revealed an open left tibia fracture and back pain with normal circulation, sensation and motor function. She was wearing a helmet and climbing harness.
A litter and attendant were lowered while the Main and Belay teams were constructing lowering and raising systems for patient evacuation. There was no available road or water access to the canyon floor at that location. The patient was treated, packaged and secured in the litter for raising in a horizontal or vertical position.
The haul system was weighted and tested before raising began.
The edge is difficult to negotiate and we learn the value of a high directional!
We get by with a little help from our friends – edge attendants in action!
At last! Our patient said it was a smooth ride.
Mission accomplished in the nick of time!
Well done Team Bloody Snow aka Winter Massacre!
Two other scenarios were run simultaneously.The Course concluded with an After Action Report and awarding of Certificates.
This was one of the best training events I have attended and is a must for Rangers and Volunteers operating under National Park Service Protocols. The experience, expertise and teaching ability of the Instructor Cadre is truly remarkable. The opportunity for networking and information sharing is fantastic. If given an opportunity, I would attend again in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, we must all continually practice these extremely perishable skills, foster teamwork and training at every opportunity and be Semper Paratus…”That Others May Live”!
Respectfully, Ken Miller Backcountry Unit Search and Rescue
Team Workouts –
I asked Anthony how he felt after the BUSAR fitness test. Thumbs up!
Prepare for takeoff…
Cobrathon – We created a land navigation course over at the BigPig Outdoor’s training site. Each leg of the course has a skill associated with search & rescue, medical, survival, tracking, or fitness once you make it to your objective, like the “5 minute fire” or “5 minute shelter” challenges.
Survival 101 – BUSAR’s own, Dusken Sledge, spent his time in the creek and completed the Survival 101 course.
Smokies Tech Team – Focused on patient packaging and prepping for interagency training later in the month
Interagency Training – BUSAR joined the National Park Service, TN Army National Guard, and TN State Parks for a three day training event at Pickett State Park and Obed WSR. We worked on high angle rescue, tech skills, and swiftwater rescue.
Team Workouts – Borkowski returned from New Mexico, so we welcomed him back with a 60 pound sandbag carry for the night in addition to his kettlebell and pack.
Cobra Lair Demo Workout – Several guys came up to help demo some walls for our future build. Armed with only sledgehammers, wheelbarrows, and testosterone, we had a great workout.
Training – We trained at Lookrock in both December and January. December focused on hypothermia treatment, SKED packaging, and high angle recovery.
January focused on multiple reps of steep angle, with sessions after dark as well.
Morgan and Sharbel also completed BigPig Outdoor’s Survival 101 course in January.
And the Jernigator did a little run up Groundhog Ridge manway..
Team Workouts – 2017 marks the end of 35 pound kettlebells as we up it to 45 pounders. Thank you for the loyal service and punishment you have brought to the team…
What do you get the team superhero for his 74th birthday? A trip on their bucket list of course.. Happy Birthday to my good friend and team member Doc Miller! His AAR follows:
AAR: BUSAR Old-Manventure: Porters Creek Manway-Lester Prong-Tourist Bunion-Dry Sluice Manway
November 12, 2016
One goal of BUSAR training has been for members to become familiar with the unmaintained manways in the GSMNP along which off trail hikers may easily lose their way. The Porters Creek area, in particular, attracts hard-core bushwhackers and has been the source of recent high profile search efforts (Morgan Briggs missed the manway and wound up on Porters Mountain, 2009–Jenny Bennett was found in Lester Prong off the manway, 2015). In the 80’s manways from the Greenbrier area were fairly open up to the Appalachian Trail. It is still possible to reach Charlie’s Bunion, near the Appalachian Trail, from the Greenbrier section of the Park beginning at the Porters Creek Trailhead at 1900 feet, following the trail to Backcountry Campsite 31, then continuing via old manways up Porters Creek and Lester Prong to reach the steep upper ridges of the Bunion. Last December the Goat led the BoBerry Manventure (BUSAR – Real Bunion) up Porters Creek Manway and the first tributary of Lester Prong to the real Charlie’s Bunion via the Pyramid, then descended via the Dry Sluice Manway.
This year he planned to lead the team up a generally parallel route following the second tributary of Lester Prong up to the “Tourist Bunion” located on the above map just above the “R” in “TRAIL” at 5536 ft. elevation.
Three promontories are variously referred to as Charlie’s Bunion, thus resulting in confusion at times.
Jenny Bennett clarified this in one of her several blogs about the area:
The Charlie’s Bunion designated on the USGS topographic map is also known as Rocky Craig. BUSAR
scaled that via Pyramid Rock in 2015. The next ridge to the west culminates in Middle Craig. The next promontory, further west, is variously called the Tourist Bunion or Bunion Craig. That was the objective of our training on this day.
The plan was to approach via the vanishing Porters Creek Manway and Lester Prong, then scale the ridge
and top out on the Tourist Bunion (Bunion Craig). We would complete the loop by descending steeply via Dry Sluice Manway to Porters Creek Manway above Campsite 31. As the date approached, Andrew announced “Alex has home improvement obligations, so I am polling the group to see who still wants to climb the Tourist Bunion this Saturday? There is a LOT of exposure, potential of death, and once you commit, you can’t down climb”. Another option was vertical training at Look Rock, but when Dusken instantly replied “I opt for the one involving death” it was game on. Sharbel assumed the role of team leader. Andrew, Common Man, Dusken, Johnny and I rounded out the team.
Andrew described the route as “trail to manway to scramble to trail to manway to trail”. Many thanks to Goat, Sharbs and Stronger than the River who had run much of it during their 6.5 hour scouting trip the previous week. Sharbel planned the day as follows: “let’s all meet at the Porters Creek trailhead at 0730 on Saturday so we can go over our plan of attack and hit the trail by 0800. Pack light as there are some tight spots to get through. The creek should be flowing decently so we will be ok on a water source for the majority of the hike. I won’t tell anyone they cannot do this hike but if anyone has doubts about themselves I would say to sit it out. Once we leave the creek we are going straight up and through some pretty thick veg. Once we get to the scramble there are some exposed areas where death is a possibility and going back isn’t an option. I think the trip will take 8-9 hours. Maybe quicker if we want. See y’all at the trail.”
Ten days before my 74th birthday I was having doubts about whether my participation would prevent the elite team of exceptional athletes from completing the mission before darkness fell. I had been longing to make the trip, and was confident that I could do it, but not if it would diminish the enjoyment and comfort level of the team who might consider me a liability. I thought secretly of doing what I considered to be honorable and let the team carry on without me when the going got tough. I would enjoy the glory of the day in quiet contemplation along beautiful Porters Creek, pondering the off trail adventures of Jenny Bennett and my late friend Charlie Klabunde in one of their favorite places, until the team returned.
Phase one unfolded as planned. Everyone reached the rally point at precisely the same time. It was a beautiful clear Fall day, warm for November, with light winds predicted on the ridge tops. When the team reached the end of the trail at Campsite 31, I was about 10 minutes behind. Knowing the real manventure was just beginning, I tactfully pointed out the fact that the day promised only 10 hours and 20 minutes of daylight, we had left the trailhead an hour after sunrise, and it might take all of the remaining light and more to complete the loop at my speed. I suggested that I linger in the area while the team proceeded at their usual high-speed pace. At that point, a great day became a fantastic day.
King Cobra declared that he wasn’t going on if I didn’t. The team unanimously rejected my proposal and unselfishly insisted that we would accomplish the goal together. What followed was one of the greatest displays of teamwork and teambuilding that I have experienced.
For most, it was literally a walk in the park, for some it was an opportunity to function outside their comfort zone, for me it was a test of physical ability and endurance and a life-changing experience which I will never forget.
The rhododendron tunnels of the old Porters Creek Manway were less tight than I had anticipated, thanks to the pruning efforts of some whom Jenny Bennett fondly referred to as “certain eccentric humans that I know”.
The drought made the trip up Porters Creek and Lester Prong dry and easy.
The way was marked by occasional cairns, some of which are very impressive.
It is important to correctly identify the confluence of Porters Creek and Lester Prong* and then to count the tributaries joining Lester Prong. The finger ridge up to the Tourist Bunion lies between the second and third tributaries of Lester Prong. The team verified this with the GPS. Even such skilled backcountry navigators as Jenny Bennett, who used only map, compass, altimeter and terrain association (not GPS) have misidentified the tributaries (Tourist Bunion).
One must know which tributary you are ascending in order to climb out of it in the correct direction.
*The cremains of Charlie Klabunde and Jenny Bennett were spread at the confluence of Porters Creek and Lester Prong. Jenny’s Last HikeSharbel led us up the third tributary, following the mostly dry but nonetheless beautiful remote streambed, to approximately 4400 ft. elevation.
At that point, travel became more difficult as we climbed through dense vegetation, belly crawling at times, to scale the ridge to our East. It was often necessary to be within 10 feet of the one climbing above you to maintain visual contact. Once we were on the ridge, the real adventure began–as did the teamwork that I mentioned.
The final 1000 feet of elevation rose progressively more steeply as the beauty and exposure increased in inverse proportion to the width of the knife edge ridge.
Jenny Bennett’s words echoed in my mind – “There’s lots of handholds and footholds—it just happens there’s a lot of air around it, too. So it becomes an exercise in positive thinking. In other words, focus on what’s there instead of what’s not there.”
Andrew schooled me in proper handholds and techniques on the flaky Anakeesta shale formation where Sand Myrtle has a tenuous, untrustworthy toehold. Common Man was right behind me to check my footholds and boost me when my old joints prevented me from reaching where I wanted, and needed, to be. In the absence of rope, body belays for the stiff and rusty “Tin Man” were improvised using a page from Jason’s Swiftwater Rescue playbook when topography exceeded the extent of my flexibility. Sharbel, Dusken and Johnny were also part of the human chain.
Considering the consequences of a slip and fall into the adjacent nearly vertical scree-filled ravine, the team literally put their lives on the line for the benefit of the weakest link, just as they would in a rescue situation. They have the skill and experience to assess and manage the risk and to do it safely. This is why we train as we do. As a proud member of this team I never had any concerns or doubts about completing the mission safely.
Jenny J cheered us up the final pitches from her vantage point on the Appalachian Trail. She would have been part of the crew but for a knee injury.
Andrew sighted a Peregrine Falcon overhead, a great omen, as we enjoyed a brief lunch and photo op on the “Tourist Bunion” while visiting with “tourists” who had come by way of the Appalachian Trail.
Like many of them, I had enjoyed the breathtaking view from this spot many times before, and in many seasons, only dreaming of reaching the Bunion the hard way. I never imagined I would have the opportunity, and certainly not at age 74. I am deeply indebted to this team who has accepted, supported, encouraged and trusted me to participate.
We were burning daylight and it was time to go down – fast! Of course that was part of the plan and our route lay 15 minutes to the East along the Appalachian Trail. Sharbel led us right to the top of the obscure Dry Sluice Manway and we began our descent to Porters Creek.
Common Man stayed with me and Johnny kept us in sight while maintaining visual contact with the leaders. The steep descent of the open Dry Sluice gave way to intimate rhododendron tunnels in the upper reaches of Porters Creek Manway which has been flagged with yellow tape. We rallied at Campsite 31 and then hit the trail together for the last leg. Common Man hung with me while Johnny continued to bridge the gap between us and the leaders. It was indeed after dark when we reached the trailhead by the light of a brilliant Super Moon. Cheerful, unselfish team members – who held team above self – waited in the cold darkness to debrief our “fantastic” adventure which was a high point in my life.
Thank you brothers…..BUSAR!
To make my long story short, it was my first day back with the park, when I got assigned to the fire. After coming of a lookout detail on Ski Mountain, I was tasked with evacuating the headquarters building with another wildlife ranger, Ryan Williamson. We cleared the building out and then were tasked to remove trees of the Gatlinburg Bypass for the evacuation.
Ryan and I started cutting trees when the embers started falling, causing spot fires to erupt on both sides of the road. We called in that it was no longer a safe route and watched the convoy roll out Two Mile. Things were getting pretty crazy at this time, with winds driving a canopy fire up the ridges.
There was a lot going on the radio, but somewhere in there we got word to head to the Spur, the section of road connecting Gatlinburg to Pigeon Forge, to clear downed trees. The Spur was one of the main evacuation routes for thousands of residents. As soon as we cleared the city limits, we started running into downed trees and cut them out as we headed towards Pigeon Forge.
Word came over the radio that trees were blocking the road at Gnatty Branch and we hit stand still traffic shortly after. I jumped out and started hoofing it through the traffic, thinking Ryan would catch up as traffic eased forward. The traffic wasn’t moving, so Ryan ditched the truck and set out on foot, catching up to me later on. It is hard to estimate, but we both agreed that we probably walked through 1.5 miles of traffic to get to Gnatty Branch.
At one point a father and son team came running up, talking to me briefly, then started running ahead. Predictably, this caused some drivers to panic and exit their vehicles thinking there was a need to run. Fearing they would abandon their vehicles compunding the problem, I assured them we would get the traffic rolling.
Arriving at Gnatty Branch, the rangers had already diverted traffic to travel in the opposite direction on the South bound Spur. Ryan, Rob, and I cut out the tree that was blocking the road. While cutting on that tree an officer from Pigeon Forge rolled up and said there was a burning tree up ahead that was blocking the road, so I jumped in with him to go clear it.
Around this time, my phone started blowing up and I got the following email from my neighbor on the other side of the mountain about a fire 1 mile from the cabin:
emergency! please call 911…there is a fire across the lake and it has burned out all of our phone lines. I tried 911, but lins were burning and I’m not sure emergency went out. Please call!!!
After calling the local fire department, I frantically tried contacting my wife to get her and my son to evacuate to safer grounds. With no luck, I was able to get the dispatcher at Graham County to get one of the volunteer firefighters to contact her. By far, that was the most stressful half hour of the night for me, observing the chaos at hand and knowing that my family would be trapped if the fire spotted close to them.
Once we cleared the North bound lanes, we shifted to the South bound, then back to the North bound, and repeating the loop until 2 am to keep it open for emergency responders. With fire on both sides of the road, houses and condominiums ablaze, and the repetitious explosions of propane tanks venting, it will be a night that both Ryan and I will never forget. Wind gusts were clocked at 85 mph that night, and at one point, I had to brace Ryan to keep the wind from pushing him into the tree he was cutting.
I started wildland firefighting 16 years ago and have seen some pretty crazy fire behavior on western details, but the firestorm surpassed anything I could have imagined in this area. The fact that the fatalities are not in the thousands, is a testament to the rangers, firefighters, and other emergency personnel that were out there that were on the front lines with us that night.
Several other BUSAR team members responded through their home units in the days after the firestorm; Doc Miller, Jason Benjamin, & Matt Jernigan. While my response was not through BUSAR, I give credit to the team for keeping me in “fighting” shape, both physically and mentally.
BUSAR’s Jason Benjamin also wrote a great Facebook post about his observations while leading an inter-agency structural crew in the days following the fire:
What the Gatlinburg fire reminded me about humanity:
I’ve avoided social media for the past several months because I was tired of being told how divided our country was. Every time I logged on to Facebook my news feed was flooded with terrible, hateful posts. People I had always known to be thoughtful and considerate were spewing venom at anyone that disagreed with them. Lines were drawn and friends became enemies as they called each other names like “deplorable”, “elitist”, “misogynist”, “hack” and “bigot”. As a military veteran and career firefighter, I’ve spent nearly 30 of my 47 years helping people. I could no longer put up with being inundated by the constant fury and vitriol. I even deleted a few people from my social media because of the hate they displayed.
I spent two days in Gatlinburg last week fighting fire and searching for victims on my days off from the fire department I work for. The staging area was in the same building as the shelter for those that had to leave their home. The moment I arrived on the first day, I saw dozens of the local residents that were staying in the shelter. Before I could get inside to check myself and my teammates in, I was thanked and blessed ten different times by strangers. The pain in their eyes and voices was heartbreaking. I already had faces to put with the stories I’d been hearing and I hadn’t even checked in yet.
Shortly after checking in, I was asked to lead a Battalion made up of firefighters and equipment from all over the Southeast. There were local departments represented, as well as departments from as far away as Cherokee, NC and Manchester, TN. All of us were there for the same reason and we couldn’t wait to get to work. Although our primary mission was searching for victims, we spent the entire morning putting out brush fires and rekindled house fires. It wasn’t until after we took a break for lunch that we finally got the chance to look for victims. At times, the smoke was thick, but we kept working for as long as we could. No one wanted to quit.
I spent the first day back at my fire department thinking about what I had seen in Gatlinburg. I thought about all the people that sincerely thanked us for being there. I thought about the victims we’d found and the ones that were still out there. I thought about the men and women that volunteered to be there because they wanted to help. I thought about the newly-broken families. I thought about the senseless pain and suffering. I thought about the tragedy.
I can’t say when it occurred to me, but at some point I thought about how I hadn’t seen hate. I hadn’t heard anyone mention politics. None of that mattered at that point in time. All that mattered was people were facing the worst nightmare of their lives and other people came from near and far to do anything and everything they could to help. I witnessed strangers helping strangers. I saw immigrants from Latin America and India sharing cups of coffee and tea with native East Tennesseans and no one was talking about building walls. They were talking about rebuilding their homes and businesses. No one seemed to care if the person sitting next to them was here legally. They did, however, make it very clear they were glad they made it out of the fire safely.
I’ve had a few days to process most of what I saw in Gatlinburg. As awful as it was, there is so much to be thankful for. A lot was lost during the fire, but so much more was saved by the brave men and women that stayed to fight and the thousands that showed up later. I’m thankful I had a chance to play a small part in it, but I’m most thankful for what the Gatlinburg fire reminded me about humanity:
Regardless of how much we disagree, we will always come together and fight to survive and protect each other. We are humans and we have not lost our humanity. We are not as divided as I thought. We just temporarily forgot what it means to be humane.
Since my birthday falls in October, I get to pick the training mission for the team. I believe that some aspects of life are best appreciated when under adverse conditions, so I pulled out my list for planning..
Last year, we crossed the Smokies via Ekaneetlee manway and swam Fontana to our pickup. 2015 trip This year, I figured I would switch it up and invade Tennessee from the North Carolina side of the park, traversing 3/4 of the park, mostly off trail.
Drop off’s would done at night in Fontana Lake, with each team not knowing their location. They would have to determine their location and rally at a UTM point. The simple rules were that you could not use established trails, except for Jenkins Ridge up to Spence, and sleeping gear would only be jackets and garbage bags. We would follow the Defeat Ridge manway from the AT down to Middle Prong trailhead.
Somewhere on Horsehoe Ridge…
Foraging and tracking..
Rally points, pullup contest winner, and Defeat Ridge manway…
Routes in red, purple, and yellow..
Rescue Swimmer II –
Herrington, Jutkofsky, Jernigan and Grieco knocked out the final part of the Public Safety Rescue Swimmer course. BUSAR’s Jason Benjamin instructed. Lots of water time, simulated rescues and a night scenario.
GRSM Tech Team Training –
Herrington and Grieco attended the Smokies Tech Team training focusing on patient packaging and setting up a highline.
VDEM SAREX – AAR by Doc Miller
Workouts – Finally cooling off. Greg is getting ready to test for a Combat Rescue Officer slot in Alaska, so we have been doing a lot of military PT to support him. Lots of pullups, pushups, situps, and flutter kicks. His PT test is at the beginning of December in Anchorage.