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Rolling out the WNC Welcome Mat for Firefighters

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Credit WCQS
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Forest Service Crew Members from around the country check into the Assembly Inn at the Montreat Conference Center

It’s Saturday morning, a small crew of staff and volunteers are in the lobby of historic Assembly Inn, the main lodging house at the Montreat Conference Center, just outside of Black Mountain. 

They’re preparing for tonight’s guests, who unlike most visitors, are not here to attend a retreat or a conference.  They are here to fight the wildfires.

“We started out with 50 and we’re now up to 100, give or take,”  says Jon Gray with the North Carolina Forest Service.  Gray is helping coordinate housing, meals and many other services for the crews who’ve been coming through since the beginning of November.

“They are all over I’ve got NC coming from down east, crews from Oregon Oklahoma, New Jersey, different states” says Gray, who has a notebook full of the many businesses and organizations in the community who have donated. "I want to thank everybody, " says Gray. 

A dedicated army of volunteers have turned this makeshift home base into a home, providing food, supplies and services.  Volunteer Susan Holcomb  has helped wash clothes.

“Anything we can do to help them while they are away from their families.”

Anne Rogers is also part of the laundry crew. Thanksgiving is on her mind

“Here I am planning to go be with family, and they will be right here  working,” says Rogers

Soon, shelves are restocked, tables are topped with snacks. Bags of clean laundry are labeled and ready for pickup. Their work is done and the volunteers head home. 

Around 8 o’clock in the evening, the crews start trickling into the Inn.  You can smell the smoke on their clothes.

David Rooks, a Forest Service fire fighter from Pender County, just north of Wilmington,  is among the first to check in.  Rooks looks worn out.

HC:  What’s the hardest part of your job?

“Being away from my children mostly.” Says Rooks, other than that it’s the physical labor, when you are out on the fire line, getting up early staying out all day, digging, it’s hard work.”

Rooks has been here for about two weeks and says he’ll most likely be here for Thanksgiving.

So will Tom Gerber. He is part of a Forest Service crew that just came in from New Jersey.   “I’m here for 14 days to do whatever is needed to help keep their forest safe.”

Hannah Johnson, from nearby Forsyth county has been  here since the beginning of November.

“We were only planning on being here for 14 days, so people doing laundry very helpful for us, we really appreciate everything,” says Johnson.

Brent Wiggins, is here from Kinston, North Carolina.  

“I’m not used to the hills, the smoke and the dust, it can get pretty tough at times.”

Wiggins says he’s been overwhelmed by the community support.

“It’s hard to be away from your family. We’ve  never been anywhere with hospitality like this,” says Wiggins, “We’re thankful for everybody and everything they’ve done. We really appreciate it.”   

Montreat Conference Center will help host Thanksgiving Dinner for the crews. 

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.