Program details the full scope of a local disaster
The dragon awoke on November 5, 2016, shrouding Rumbling Bald Mountain in thick smoke and white-hot flames. For 25 days, the beast fumed, burning some 7,100 acres of woodland in its ire.
The dragon, says author Rose Senehi, was the Party Rock Fire. Ignited by a cigarette and fanned by severe drought, the wildfire grew to devastating proportions, demanding an unprecedented request for mutual aid. More than 1,000 emergency personnel from 225 North Carolina fire companies and states as far away as Alaska worked to slay the beast. When the embers cooled, some $7.8 million had been spent to fight the flames.
Senehi’s two-hour talk about the disaster will pull from her 2018 novel Catching Fire (K.I.M. Publishing), described as a precise “historical map” of the wildfire. But the book is also character driven, following Annie Simms, a volunteer firefighter and mammalogist who must navigate the trauma of her past while saving her community from the flames. In Catching Fire, Simms is the first to spot a column of smoke rising from the rugged crags of Rumbling Bald Ridge in Lake Lure.
Having published nine other pieces of historical fiction, Senehi wanted Catching Fire to be as factual as possible. About six months after the fire, she started researching reports from the North Carolina Forest Service, pinning down the timeline of firefighting strategies. But for emotional insight, the author turned to first-hand accounts, conducting at least 120 hours of interviews.
“People were really traumatized,” says Senehi, a resident of Chimney Rock who was in Charlotte when the fire took hold. “I’d ask, ‘Where were you on Wednesday?’ And they’d just stare … there were no days; there was just the fire.”
Folks do remember the pervasive selflessness. On the fifth day, for instance, the fire absolutely exploded. Flames diverged and headed in three different directions, threatening 1,200 homes and the Lake Lure Inn, where hundreds of families had sought shelter; veering toward Black Mountain, just up Route 74; and heading straight for Chimney Rock.
Henderson County stepped in, sending a brigade of fire engines to form a literal barrier between the town and the flames. “They watched the fire come down the mountain and made sure it didn’t jump the line,” says Senehi, her voice cracking from emotion.
It was this “mountain ethos” that made the Party Rock Fire such a historic event.
“It was the idea that we’re all in it together,” says Senehi. “That’s what makes this story so different.”
The Blue Ridge Center for Lifelong Learning hosts Rose Senehi in an online program, “Party Rock Fire,” Wednesday, April 14, from 1-3pm. $30/members, $20/nonmembers. Registration deadline is April 13; forms must be mailed in: c/o BRCLL, 180 West Campus Drive, Flat Rock, 28731. To register, visit brcll.com. To learn more about Rose Senehi, visit rosesenehi.com.