Since the Party Rock Fire started on Nov. 5, it has seemed as if the people in the nearby communities have had one of two jobs. They were either fighting the fire, or they were cooking for the people fighting the fire.
“We’re all just so tired,” said Kathy Morgan, whose husband, Jackey Morgan, is assistant chief of the Bat Cave Volunteer Fire Department & Rescue. For nearly three weeks, she and others have been coming to the station, on the edge of U.S. 64 three miles west of Chimney Rock, around 5 a.m. to get breakfast started. Some nights, they’re there until 10 p.m. Three meals a day, for 150 to 175 people each sitting – all of Bat Cave’s crew, plus some of the U.S. and N.C. Forest Service crews, their colleagues in other agencies and contractors.
Like other volunteer fire departments in the area, the Bat Cave squad does structure protection while the federal and state crews are in the woods trying to contain the fire. At one point, the volunteers had hoses run behind every building in the Village of Chimney Rock, ready to fight back the blaze if it came too close. When the fire advanced on a section of the Rumbling Bald resort community in Lake Lure, it was the same. If 40 houses are threatened, there are 40 crews, one on each house.
By Tuesday, the fire was less of a threat to structures, and that evening, the volunteers were able to stand down, which meant the people taking care of them would get Wednesday off.
But then Thursday would be Thanksgiving. And most hadn’t even had time to go grocery shopping for their own families.
Suddenly, the people who took care of the firefighters needed someone to take care of them.
Amanda Govern, who lives in the community, sent out an alarm of her own.
“She has contacts everywhere,” Morgan said. “She thought it would be nice if our families, and any of the firefighters who were here, could come here and eat, so nobody would have to cook at home.”
In no time, Govern had commitments. The N.C. Department of Agriculture sent 30 turkeys. This neighbor could prepare collards, this one green beans. One would buy rolls, others would make biscuits or prepare trays of fresh fruit. Grocery stores and restaurants would contribute. A nearby church sent folding tables, enough to seat 300 people.
Boy Scout Troop 605 in Edneyville volunteered to cook the turkeys, which they could do all at once on two huge grills.
“Normally, we like to do an open pit,” said Curt Vorblich, a troop leader. But with the burn ban in place across Western North Carolina, he and Kevin Varble had to resort to charcoal, with some apple and cherry wood thrown in. Lowe’s Home Improvement contributed 200 pounds of briquettes.
They started the birds at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and pulled them off 12 hours later.
“We smoked them,” Varble said, laughing. Might as well. “With the fire burning so long, everything is going to taste like smoke regardless.”
Just before noon, Govern sent out meals packed in foam clam shells to 20 firefighters working hotspots on a wooded ridge several miles away. There was so much food, each firefighter got two boxes in order to get a taste of everything.
Families and any firefighters in the area who could get away for an hour or so lined up at the station and loaded up paper plates with the turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, candied sweet potatoes. Most of it was delivered ready to serve, except for being heated in the big gas stove that has been working overtime during the fire.
They came and saved our town. It’s our pleasure to feed them.
Ashley Guffey, whose father is the assistant chief of the Bat Cave Volunteer Fire Department & Rescue
“What’s this stuff?” one out-of-state firefighter asked when he reached the collards. “Looks good,” he said, and scooped some onto his plate.
Ashley Guffey, Kathy and Jackey Morgan’s daughter, stood behind the counter offering to serve side dishes.
“They came and saved our town,” Guffey said. “It’s our pleasure to feed them.”
Bryan Crawley, a medic with a firefighting crew from Knoxville, Tenn., enjoyed the meal. “I’d like to be home with my family,” he said. “But I’m with my family now. If you’re police, fire or EMS, it’s family no matter where you sit down at the table.”
It would have been easy to find something to complain about: the long hours, the time away from family, the smoke, the blackened hills. Instead they came together to give thanks.
Daniel Russell, 12, a scout in Troop 605, had kicked off the meal with a blessing, thanking God for the firefighters and praying for their continued safety. So far, there have been no major injuries and no structures lost on the Party Rock Fire, one of many still burning across Western North Carolina.
There was one more thing to be thankful for.
Early Thursday morning, for the first time in more than two months, it rained.