Ounce of prevention

FenceRail Gap development earns Firewise designation

Being prepared isn’t just a Boy Scout motto. The residents of FenceRail Gap community have taken steps to be prepared should fire threaten their homes.

A group of dignitaries, special guests and residents were on hand on Thursday, April 22, as Tennessee Division of Forestry personnel officially bestowed the designation of a Firewise Community on FenceRail Gap.

Blount County Mayor Jerry Cunningham said FenceRail Gap is a special development and is an example he uses when talking about ridge-top development and viewscapes.

“FenceRail Gap is the poster child for how it should be done,” said Cunningham. “You can drive by on U.S. 321, and you have to look to see it. It has earth tone exteriors with no-glare glass. It’s built in an environmentally-friendly way. In my opinion, it does not create blight on the landscape.”

The mayor said residents in the development work closely together to earn the rating. “It’s a close-knit community. In the event of a forest fire, I don’t know of a community anywhere that has done as much to prevent it. They’ve come together,” Cunningham said

Nathan Wise, assistant district forester, said, “The Firewise Program is a group effort of agencies and communities working together. We all have a stake.”

Wise said the Firewise program gives the homeowners ways to prepare so that, in the event of a wildfire, there will be less chance of homes being damaged or lives lost because residents have taken steps to prevent the fires from spreading.

There are 24 lots on 200 acres in the development situated between Walland and Townsend. It was started in 1999 by developer Gordon Wright.

Wright said the road was constructed in part to be environmentally friendly while also wide enough to support emergency vehicles. “It’s called a low-impact road,” he said. “It has a lower impact on the environment.”

Waters said there are only 534 Firewise communities across the country. “There are only six in the state, and this is the first in Blount County,” he said. “This is a big deal. You have really taken the initiative, and I really appreciate it.”

John Kirksey, a fire chief with the state Division of Forestry, said many communities get started on the process and then interest fades, and they stop pursuing the rating. “You all kept things going,” he said. “It’s a rewarding feeling.”

Blount County Fire Chief Doug McClanahan and Capt. Tim Ogle were on hand for the ceremony. “This is great. Anytime anybody can come forward and take proactive steps for prevention, it can save lives,” he said.

The road to becoming a Firewise community started in May of 2007 when several residents attended the 2007 Firewise Community Leaders workshop in Alcoa. In November of 2008, Waters attended the annual FenceRail Gap homeowners meeting to present a program on the initiative. In early 2009, the homeowners association appointed a Firewise subcommittee to pursue a certification as a Firewise Community. In 2009, three residents attended the 2009 Firewise Community Leaders Workshop in Pigeon Forge.

In working to become a Firewise Community, residents conducted a community-wide hazard assessment with the Tennessee Department of Forestry and Blount County fire departments, conducted 11 home assessments with TDF and competed a Community Wildfire Protection Plan. They received national recognition as a Firewise community in November of 2009.

Further steps the community must take include upgrading house and lot signage to be consistent, fire-resistant and reflective, create a wildfire evacuation plan and a call tree, reduce pine regeneration adjacent to primary roads, investigate the use of community pup hydrants as a wildfire suppression tool, continue homeowner education and encourage owners to keep defensible space around their homes.

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