By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
SEVIERVILLE — Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers have begun helping residents whose homes were burned during wildfires which swept through portions of Sevier County on March 3 and lasted through early April when the fires were finally contained.
The fires were primarily in two locations according to local news media — Hatcher Mountain in Wears Valley and Dupont/Milestone Gap in Seymour. WBIR-TV in Knoxville reported that 2,498 acres were burned in Wears Valley and 219 structures affected while fires burned 959 acres in Seymour affecting one structure in Sevier County and one structure in Blount County.
There were no deaths in the fires, according to the station. The number of structures originally was reported to be near 300 but county officials said some structures were erroneously counted more than once, WBIR reported.
A team from Knox County Baptist Association gathered April 7 at the home of Carl and Martha Cupp in Shagbark, a community of mountain cabins in Sevier County. Their home in the community was among 37 or so that were destroyed or severely damaged, they said.
The KCBA team was joined by a youth group on spring break from First Baptist Church, Sevierville.
Using shovels and buckets, the team members sorted through the debris and brought buckets filled with dirt and other items for other volunteers to sift through.
Mrs. Cupp was hopeful they could find some of her mother’s jewelry which, for her, were more of sentimental than monetary value.
Roughly one week after the fire, the Cupps were still overwhelmed and shocked to see their “dream home” destroyed, she said. Yet, she acknowledged they were “blessed” because there was no loss of life and that people like the Tennessee Baptist volunteers have shown so much love and support through their actions.
Craig Wells, student pastor at First Baptist, noted that some of his youth were affected by the Sevier County fires in 2016 and they just wanted to help. “This is a good ministry opportunity for us,” he said.
Randy Treece, a DR volunteer from Beaver Dam Baptist Church, Knoxville, sifted through bucket after bucket hoping to find a treasured memory for the couple. “I just hope that finding something will help them find peace and deal with their loss,” he said.
David McMillan, a member of Lyons Creek Baptist Church, Strawberry Plains, served as crew chief for the team which included Treece, John Tapp and Stephen Pulsford.
“Everything went well,” he said. He praised the youth group which joined them later in the morning. “They were phenomenal,” he said. They were able to move metal from the excavation site and the team covered most of the living area. They also sifted the debris in search of items.
McMillan said the Cupps deeply appreciated all that was done. “They said what we did was over and above their expectations,” he noted. McMillan also helped with fire recovery in 2016 fires in Gatlinburg and Sevier County. He noted the Cupps were among the most appreciative of anyone he has helped before.
Though they did not find specific jewelry that could be identified, he said they did recover some items that had sentimental value for the couple.
Mrs. Cupp had shared with the KCBA team that she was discouraged with the evil in the world.
She added, however, that having the volunteers willing to come to their aid affirmed “there are still good people” in the world. “It gives us hope and encouragement,” she said.
McMillan said that when he hears comments such as hers, “that is as good as gold. That makes me want to keep doing disaster relief work. It is super motivational for volunteers when the people they help are so appreciative.”
“Our hearts go out to the families that were affected by the fires in Sevier County,” said Wes Jones, disaster relief specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “We are grateful that there were no deaths.
TBDR sent a shower unit that was used for the fire fighters as they came off the lines. An incident command center has been set up and fire recovery units are starting to help families sift for valuables that may have survived the fire. We will keep Tennessee Baptists informed as things move forward,” Jones said.
He encouraged Tennessee Baptists “to pray for the families affected. Due to the size of the disaster, the area may not qualify for FEMA assistance which may make it harder on homeowners trying to put their lives back together.
To support this recovery effort financially, go to www.tndisasterrelief.org/contributions and click on the general DR tab in the drop down menu. B&R