Joy Jucker leaned over to pet Pepper. The collie couldn’t seem to find home.
“Our neighborhood is going to be a little different for awhile,” Joy told Pepper, before glancing up in the direction of where home used to stand. Her three-story, wooden A-frame house in Chalet Village once was nestled on the side of the mountain. That was before wildfire tore through east Tennessee, reducing homes to rubble and ash. Reports state 14 people died as a result of the tragic blaze, which authorities have charged two teenagers with starting.
During the cleanup effort on Thursday, Joy and her husband Pete paused to talk and pray with the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplains.
“It gives me strength,” Joy said after the prayer, choking up. “It helps my spirit. It really does. It makes me stronger.”
Chaplain Jay Watson later said the homeowners aren’t the only ones blessed. “We come in an effort to be a blessing to them, and we walk away to find out we were the ones who were blessed.”
Crisis-trained chaplains are in the area offering emotional and spiritual care alongside the efforts of sister ministry Samaritan’s Purse. Prior to Thursday, when chaplains started visiting home sites, they were ministering to people picking up items at the nearby distribution center and visiting with Gatlinburg shop owners trying to get their businesses ready for Friday’s reopening to the public.
As Samaritan’s Purse volunteers helped remove pieces of the Juckers’ house from its lot, Pete joked with them they could use his tools if they could find them.
Reflecting on the wildfire, Joy said she had been in denial that anything was going to happen. The smoke levels in her hometown of Gatlinburg had fluctuated ever since the nearby wildfires started, but on Nov. 28, it was the worst it had been. She remembers talking with her neighbor when all of a sudden, the embankment across from her house caught on fire. They worked desperately together with a garden hose and a bucket to put out the flames. It helped, but not for long.
“The wind came up and [the fire] just spread all over the bank,” Joy said.
It was time to go. Joy put her pets—two dogs and a cat—in the car and headed down the mountain, joining up with countless others who also were making the mad dash at a stressful 5 mph to safety. She called Pete, who was working at their Gatlinburg store, and they agreed to rally at their second shop in Pigeon Forge. The reunion was stalled, however, when Pete was trapped on the mountain by the flames. He stayed at their store, tending to many others who were trapped with him.
Kevin and Tanya Farmer also had to evacuate at a moment’s notice, losing nearly everything in the fire. Still, the happy couple carried a special disposition while visiting with chaplain coordinator Al New in a common area of their Pigeon Forge hotel on Thursday. Just the day before, Tanya had met Al and decided to rededicate her life to the Lord. Finding a church is now a priority for her and Kevin, who are unflinching in the face of life after the fire.
“This [fire] is nothing compared to what we’ve been through,” Tanya said, sharing how her twin brother died in a fire. Kevin also lost two children.
“Things is going to be alright,” Kevin said. “We made it out together. As long as we’re together we’re just as happy as we can get.”
Kevin said he will lean on God while figuring out next steps like where they’ll live.
Al encouraged him, “It’s your faith in Him that’s what will carry you through this next year.”
“Thank you, sir,” Kevin said.
“He didn’t bring you this far to leave you,” Al added.
Back at the Juckers’ property, chaplains Lester Burnette and Jay Watson circled up for another moment of prayer with the homeowners and some Samaritan’s Purse volunteers.
Adjacent to the Juckers’ home sat the charred remnants of her dad’s van. Joy had bought it from him when he went into assisted living years ago. Now, she said with tears in her eyes and a smile, her dad and mom were riding around in that car in heaven.
A pole holding an American flag and a Switzerland flag leaned on the passenger’s side dashboard. The brightly colored flags waved proudly overhead, a stark contrast to the otherwise ashen gray landscape.
“We’re country strong—mountain strong,” Joy said, using a catch phrase that can be seen on marquees throughout Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. “We wanted people to know that we are here. We’re going to rebuild.”