The Johnson City Fire Department gained national attention last November when a photo of several Tri-Cities firefighters went viral.
The photo, which was picked up by celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, depicts several firefighters sleeping on the ground in Gatlinburg after 30 hours of working against the wildfire which decimated several areas throughout East Tennessee.
Kaitlin Asbury, a JCFD firefighter, was part of a group of firefighters who went to Gatlinburg that day. She recalls the event as a surreal experience.
“On our way down to the command center in Gatlinburg there was fire to the right and to the left of us and it was just mindblowing — you don’t expect to see fire like that on the ridge,” she said.
According to Asbury, the JCFD unit was dispatched almost immediately on arrival and they didn’t stop working for the next 30 hours.
“We got dispatched within 15 minutes of arriving and some of us had already been on shift back in JC, so what you’re seeing in the photo is pure exhaustion,” Asbury said.
The JCFD is rarely called in to deal with massive scale forest fires and is mainly trained for domestic fires. So, for Asbury and her team, the Gatlinburg wildfire pushed them to their limits.
“We are trained for structural firefighting, not wildfires,” Asbury said. “Most of us have never had to deal with that, so being in Gatlinburg was a once in a lifetime experience that was like fighting a monster.”
One of the things which struck Asbury the most was seeing so many homes and recognizable Gatlinburg features up in flames.
“When we got to our first location, we could see several of those million dollar cabins burning up as well as all the cars on a car dealership lot and I just thought ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” Asbury said.
Asbury and her team are grateful for the publicity, but hope that it brings attention to relief efforts in the Gatlinburg area.
“It’s been a good thing for the guys to get some recognition, but I don’t want it to take away from the people of Gatlinburg. They lost so much,” Asbury said. “When an event like this happens you get to see everyone come together to help, and I think if anything like that were to happen here we would get the same treatment.”