By Collin Brooks
Kaitlin Asbury and Adam Momberger were among the 17 Johnson City fire personnel — including Fire Chief Mark Scott — that made the trip to try and help fight the Gatlinburg Fires two weeks ago, and it was an event that they will never forget.
“It was just humbling, there is no preparation for that,” Momberger said. “I have been in the fire service for 12 years and my mind couldn’t wrap around the scope of the devastation. It’s a historic fire; it’s the fire of a lifetime. I’ll more than likely never see anything like that again.”
Johnson City sent four trucks to help and the crew spent 18 hours fighting different areas of a fire that scorched 15,000 acres, including close to 400 structures, and claimed 14 lives in its path.
Asbury and Momberger had already been 14 hours into their normal 24-hour shift when they got the news they would be heading to Gatlinburg and Asbury said that she was oblivious to the fact that the fires had gotten out of control.
“We hadn’t had the TV on, so I didn’t even know about it until we got a call from the captain,” she said.
That was when she knew it was severe. She spent her time on the trip looking at an iPad to see the different pictures that began to pop up on the internet.
As they got closer to Gatlinburg, the crew was able to see the fires burning in different areas of the mountains.
“The experience was just mind-blowing,” Asbury said. “Seeing pictures and then seeing it in real-life, it almost just didn’t seem to be real.”
She didn’t quite understand the damage until she had to compile a report on the areas where they fought the fires.
“I was looking on Google Maps, because I couldn’t remember some of the names of the roads, and looking at the old photos and the streets views, it wasn’t even recognizable,” Asbury said. “It just looked like a completely different street.”
A photo of Johnson City firefighters sleeping during one of their few breaks went viral online and got a reaction from millions of people on social media. Momberger was one of the five firefighters snoozing in the picture.
“I was sleeping on the job,” Momberger said through a smile.
Little sleeping was actually done while the group fought fires for 18 hours and it provided them with training that was different than the room and content fires that the Johnson City crew is use to fighting. During one of the stops in Gatlinburg, the crew fought a fire for seven hours straight.
But, Asbury said that it could also be a learning experience for all communities.
“If there is a wildfire out there, then you need to evacuate immediately, and some people may need others’ help to get out. So people need to know their neighbors and if they may need a way out,” Asbury said.
But more than a learning experience, Momberger said that he just hopes that people remember that the area will need assistance for some time to come.
“I just hope six months from now, when this isn’t in the news, that people continue to help,” he said.