East Tennessee banker Will McCampbell parks his fire truck in his backyard. When the fire alarm sounds, about once a month, he instant messages his boss at U.S. Bank and runs out his back door.
In Townsend, a town of 500 people that sits 30 miles south of Knoxville and backs up to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, McCampbell and 15 other volunteers run the local fire department.
Over the past month, they have responded to more than a dozen calls as drought conditions increased wildfires in the area. Those wildfires pinnacled last week as 80-mile-an-hour winds swept the fire through the neighboring resort town of Gatlinburg. The Townsend department was responding to a separate fire when chatter picked up and quickly turned chaotic on their radios. They regrouped and rushed to Gatlinburg 25 miles away.
“It was creepy,” said McCampbell. “As we approached the city, the old, wooden guardrails on the road had either collapsed or were still burning. Charred cars sat on the shoulders. As we arrived at Gatlinburg’s main strip, we could hear fire alarms sounding at each building. It was post-Apocalyptic.”
McCampbell and the Townsend firefighters – along with hundreds of other first responders – worked well into the night fighting, searching and rescuing before departing to respond to a call back home. The Gatlinburg fire would go down as one of the deadliest tragedies in Tennessee history, responsible for 14 deaths and more than 100 injuries as of a week later.
“The community is mourning,” said McCampbell. “But, we’ve seen the good emerge, too. There’s been a tremendous outpouring of volunteerism. Community members have been eager to pass out bottled water and supplies as disaster trucks roll into town – whatever they can do to help.”
McCampbell has leaned on his wife, kids and parents for perspective in the past week. His dad was one of the founding members of the department in 1979 and remains eager to tell stories of the days they’d “pass the hat” just to get fuel in their trucks. McCampbell followed in his footsteps after moving back to Townsend and starting his career with U.S. Bank in 2007.
“My dad has taught me how to manage risk, which is even clearer now with a family back home. What are you risking and what’s the reward?” said McCampbell, who now, coincidentally, works as a risk manager at U.S. Bank, which provides employees up to 16 hours of paid time off annually to spend volunteering in their community.
The family talked about the past week’s devastation at their weekly Sunday night dinner together.
“These are the types of communities where you’ll arrive at a fire scene and neighbors will come outside to try to help. There’s a sense of energy here. The town is not lost, we will rebuild.”
Pat Swanson is a member of U.S. Bank's corporate communications team.