Firefighters arriving in the South get warm welcome: 'They are awesome'

Flames were dancing on the crackling dead leaves along the Appalachian Trail, creating oven-like heat and plumes of billowing smoke that burned the eyes and throat.

This week’s nightmarish scene was at the northernmost tip of the relentless Rock Mountain wildfire, a blaze that is now gobbling up more than 26 square miles on both sides of the Georgia-North Carolina border.

Lane Whitney stepped gingerly around the flames, intentionally set by fellow firefighters to burn away any fuel sources and halt the conflagration’s rapid advance. A wiry fireman from Northern California, Whitney looked up, down and then all around. He was most worried about “widow-makers,” or what firefighters call the trees and limbs that weaken in fires and then can fall and impale or crush those below.

“We definitely keep our heads on a swivel,” the former Long Beach State University basketball player said. “We are always looking up.”

The father of five is among hundreds of firefighters from across the nation who are streaming into the Southeast and battling many blazes. Driven by camaraderie and adrenaline and their need to put food on the table for their families, they are preparing to work long shifts on Thanksgiving Day and beyond.

Along the way, they are encountering something both new and pleasantly surprising: southern hospitality. Local residents are showering them with care packages, cooking them meals and giving them places to rest their heads at night. And this outpouring of support is bringing Southerners together following a particularly nasty presidential election that has at times turned friends and even relatives against each other.

That friendliness is a bright spot amid this unprecedented crisis, which has been exacerbated by a warming climate, Georgia’s drought and recent windy conditions. Georgia typically deals with 30 wildfires each year in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service. This year, 500 wildfires have spread across the region since October alone, straining federal resources and sowing fear among homeowners.

Rick Sandidge, a fellow Californian who was patrolling the Appalachian Trail with Whitney, said he and his colleagues have been treated exceptionally well in the South.

“I have never been so welcomed,” said Sandidge, a federal contractor like Whitney. “You almost want to hug everyone you talk to.”

Whitney shared similar feelings as he searched through piles of dead leaves, seeking to keep the blaze contained in this part of the Nantahala National Forest.

“The southern hospitality is like nothing I have ever seen,” he said.

Around that time, Whitney heard a boom from some distance away in the woods. A tree had just fallen.

Bringing Thanksgiving home

Liberty Baptist Church, a modest place of worship in Tiger with a small white steeple, was buzzing with activity this week. Volunteers were folding socks and red bandanas, readying them for the firefighters pouring in from Arizona, Colorado, Montana and everywhere else. The church’s Sunday school classroom was stacked nearly floor to ceiling with donated packages of bottled water.

Many of these donations have been coming from the local area, but Pastor Scott Cates said his church is also receiving goods from as far away as San Diego, Calif., and New York City. His eyes rimmed red from lack of sleep, Cates smiled, remembering the looks he got recently when he went to a local store and wheeled a cart brimming with socks up to the cashier. They were for the heroes fighting the blazes around his town.

“People were looking at us like, ‘What in the world?’” he said. “It’s been amazing.”

The wildfires, Cates added, have brought people together following the contentious presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

“It has brought Thanksgiving home in a lot of ways,” he said. “We come together when there is a crisis or a difficult time and we stand hand in hand and arm in arm together. It’s humbling to watch. It’s been life-changing.”

Tom Stokesberry, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman from California, has been on the receiving end of such southern generosity. He chuckled as he recalled how an older man picked up his tab at a Mexican restaurant in Clayton. When Stokesberry told him he didn't need to do that, the man said something along these lines: Young man, you don't tell me what to do. Stokesberry knew he couldn't refuse at that point.

At the Rabun County Courthouse Monday evening, Stokesberry and his colleagues received sustained applause when Rabun Administrator Darrin Giles announced no one had been seriously injured and no homes had burned down as a result of their efforts in the county. Giles then shared an anecdote about the somewhat forceful nature of Rabun’s hospitality. Some local women, he said, had volunteered to cook Thanksgiving meals for the firefighters. One of the firefighters, he said, wondered how they were going to make that work since they would be working long shifts on the holiday.

“I said, ‘Listen, there are some ladies calling and they said they are going to feed you all,’” Giles said, eliciting laughter from the audience. “You just don’t tell them no. I am glad God has blessed me to live in a place like this. It is wonderful to be here.”

About 11 miles northwest of the courthouse sits Ramah Darom, a sprawling Jewish summer camp. The camp has rescheduled some events so that it could host more than 150 firefighters from all over, including California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Oregon. The firefighters have nomadic lives and often sleep in tents. But now they are able to rest in bunkbeds in heated cabins, a short walk to basketball and volleyball courts and a state-of-the-art kosher kitchen.

The wildfires are bringing people together for “a common cause of doing the right thing,” said Anthony Franklin, the camp’s general manager. And without the firefighters keeping the flames at bay, he said, “We would be shaking in our boots.”

Amanda Grubb was stationed nearby, wearing a radio strapped to her chest. The Colorado native and mother of two young children is serving as the “momma bear,” or a liaison between the camp and her fellow firefighters. Asked how she and her husband are making it work with her traveling job, she confessed: “I don’t even know. We will see how it goes.” But Grubb said her husband understands and supports what she does, partly because he is also a firefighter.

“This isn’t a job for me. I just have a true passion for doing this stuff and taking care of the guys,” she said before giving a short tour of the camp and marveling at all of the amenities. “It’s been outstanding here. Everyone has had open arms.”

The St. Florian medal

Adan Rescate lost his St. Christopher medal fighting a fire in California, so the Catholic replaced it with one depicting St. Florian, the patron of firefighters. The silver necklace hung around the New Mexico native’s neck as he hunted trouble spots on a hill near the Georgia-North Carolina border. Young and soft-spoken, Rescate has important people waiting for him back home: a wife and a new baby girl. He has been calling them every night since he and his colleagues drove three days to get to Georgia this month. His wife, he said, makes it possible for him to be away from home for so long.

“She allows me to do it,” he said. “It wouldn’t really be possible otherwise.”

He added he enjoys the work because it’s exciting, the pay isn’t bad and he can work many hours. The work is also fulfilling. He mentioned the care packages he and his colleagues have received from Liberty Baptist Church along with the handwritten thank you notes from area school children.

“I like to think I made a difference,” he said. “It’s rewarding in a lot of ways.”

A pungent smell of charred wood hung in the air as Rescate peeled off one of his gloves and placed the back of his hand in the soil. Feeling no heat, he moved onto a fallen tree and began to hack away at it with his heavy shovel-like tool, revealing bright red embers. He smothered them with handfuls of soil.

Moments later, Rescate spotted a long and sharp tree limb hanging precariously in some branches above. He pulled out a roll of orange “Killer Tree” tape and tied a piece to the trunk. Like Whitney, Rescate constantly glances around as he works.

“You want to keep your head up and make sure there are no overhead hazards,” said Rescate, a federal contractor who has fought fires in six other states out west this year alone.

Across the road in Clay County, N.C., George Custer was praising Rescate and his colleagues. Custer, who was born in Marietta, credited them with saving his beautiful, hand built wooden home. He saw flames through his windows this week, but decided against evacuating because he trusted Rescate and the others to do their work. Custer has invited the firefighters into his home so they can look over their maps, plot strategy and benefit from his intimate knowledge of the surrounding terrain.

“They are awesome,” said Custer, who is himself a volunteer firefighter. “I sat right here and watched the whole side of that hill on fire last night. I went to sleep because I feel so confident in them.”