Lookout Mountain wildfire reminds homeowners of nature's savage beauty

Lookout Mountain bluff dweller Al Lutz talks about the weather conditions that saved their home from a recent wildfire that burned over 20-acres on the western side of the mountain.
photo Lookout Mountain bluff dweller's Al and Julie Lutz talk about a recent wildfire that burned over 20-acres on the western side of the mountain just below their home.
photo Lookout Mountain residents Kate Fuller, left, and her daughter, Tallulah, walk along the bluff where a recent wildfire burned over 20-acres just below their backyard.

Kate Fuller remembers when she first smelled the smoke.

"I took the dog out and noticed I smelled burning," she said, sitting at the dining room table in her home on the west brow of Lookout Mountain. "I was wondering what idiot was burning leaves when we haven't had rain in a month."

"And then I went back in the house, and right there in between those trees was a big column of smoke," she said, pointing out a window to the tops of the trees visible only a few hundred feet away.

Fuller, who works from home and cares for her 5-year-old daughter, Tallulah, called 911 and learned firefighters were already headed for the rugged bluff just below her home.

"Within an hour, we could hear machinery down in the forest. It sounded like a dinosaur going through - we could hear people on radios," she said.

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"The worst thing about all of this was that we could hear a lot and see a lot of smoke, but we could never pinpoint how close everything was. Because of the bluff, we never knew was it at the back door or a mile away."

Fuller took no chances. "I asked my daughter, 'Which toys are irreplaceable, honey?'" she said. "All of our stuff was piled by the front door."

Fuller, who is pregnant, alerted her neighbors, Al and Julie Lutz, who live next door with Julie's 92-year-old aunt.

Al Lutz, a retired minister who has been on the board of nearby Covenant College for 22 years off and on, was in the house and didn't notice the smoke until his wife arrived home and pointed it out to him. Initially, they didn't worry.

"It was down under the bluff. We figured it wouldn't climb up," Al Lutz said Thursday, sitting in the couple's living room.

But Julie began to prepare.

"I was packed and had things by the door," she said. "A few inexpensive things that are sentimental, medicines. It's amazing how little, when you think about it, what do you really have to have?"

Lynn Hartman lives south of the Fullers and Lutzes, several blocks below Covenant College in the Maggie Bluff subdivision. The rear deck of her house has one of the best views on the bluff, some 180 degrees from north to south. But it was her son who first noticed the fire.

"My son was over in the valley and he sent me a photo of some smoke and asked me if I could see it," Hartman said. She could.

Only a few firefighters showed up that Monday but the number increased Tuesday.

"I began to think this was more serious," she said. "Something was coming my way."

Hartman began texting with Kate Fuller, whose house was on the other side of the fire. They knew each other through Hartman's son and daughter-in-law, who had been the Fullers' neighbors when they lived in nearby Fairyland. Fuller had good news. The fire was moving away from her house, to the south. But that was bad news for Hartman, because it meant the flames were headed her way.

* * *

For the Fullers, the Lutzes, the Hartmans and others living nearby, last week's wildfire was a reminder that a dreamy landscape can be transformed into an out-of-control nightmare with little warning.

For almost 100 years, Chattanoogans who had enough money have built wooded retreats on the sheer rock cliffs of Lookout or Signal or Elder mountains, with no immediate neighbors except the deer and the trees.

Kate Fuller works for a Long Island, N.Y.-based company that sells big ships. She gets funny looks when she tells people she sells oil tankers from her home in the woods, she said. Her husband, Clay, is a Catoosa County assistant district attorney in Ringgold, Ga.

"My husband is from a small town and he always wanted something with more land," Fuller said. "I didn't want to be in the boonies. We have almost two acres, with an insane view."

So they bought their retreat in the woods and, in April, moved in.

The homes at the northern tip of Lookout Mountain, from Point Park back past the Incline Railway and down to Rock City, are more formal, including stylish mansions dating back to the 1920s and 1930s when Covenant College was the Lookout Mountain Hotel (nicknamed "the Castle in the Clouds"). But as you head south along the top of the mountain, particularly after crossing the Tennessee-Georgia state line, the mountaintop narrows dramatically and the homes become more Mountain Retreat than Mountain Showplace.

Developments such as Maggie Bluff, Stones Throw and Brow Wood are hidden in the woods and the "dead end" sign at the start of Barnes Road discourages would-be visitors from driving past the two dozen homes on large lots along a mile or more of roadway.

photo Lookout Mountain bluff dweller's Kate Fuller and her daughter, Tallulah, climb the stairs to their west brow home where a recent wildfire burned over 20-acres in the National Forest just below their property.

The view from the bluff is spectacular, with the landscape changing colors according to the time of day or season. Many of the houses on Frontier Bluff Road where the Fullers and Lutzes live are isolated, with a gravel driveway the only indication of a nearby home. Maggie Bluff, on the brow a couple of blocks south of Covenant College, is more formal, with a small sign on a stone pillar announcing its presence, and nine similar homes arrayed around a circular driveway.

The west side of the mountain drops off at a steep angle, and then plummets precipitously for 100 feet or so of sheer rock before again descending sharply. The fire was wedged into a small area, initially just an acre or so that spread to some 20 acres by the time it was extinguished.

Several narrow trails already criss-crossed the area above the cliff, and within hours after the fire was spotted Monday, Georgia Forestry Commission employees used two large bulldozers to blaze additional trails.

But the fire was at the bottom, apparently started after a log from an illegal campfire fell from the bluff and ignited a deep layer of debris, fire officials said. There were no trails down the sheer rock cliff, and no way for a bulldozer or a human to make one.

That left firefighters with two approaches - dropping water on the flames from helicopters, and setting preventive fires alongside the trails to burn off the underbrush and create a 50- to 75-foot-wide ashen barrier the fire could not cross.

But they first needed to be sure they could put the preventive fires out safely. That meant hauling several thousand feet of hose down the slope and linking it to a storage tank partway down. That tank was fed by a pumper truck up above supplied by the volunteer West Brow Fire and Rescue.

Despite the heat, firefighters from the Georgia Forestry Commission, the National Park Service and the U.S Forest Service worked in thick gear with hats and long sleeves, often carrying heavy backpacks down to the fire area. Besides the locals, a team from Oklahoma and Arkansas was brought in to help out. The heat was exhausting and bees and wasps were a major headache, fire spokesman Warren Bielenberg said. Firefighters encountered one rattlesnake and a black snake in the rocky underbrush, he said.

Despite regular torrents of water from the helicopters, the flames persisted. Firefighters began planning for a longer stay.

On Friday, a team of between 25 and 30 firefighters showed up in the Fullers' yard and began cutting back the underbrush from their property. "They were all extremely respectful and polite," Kate Fuller said. "The guy in charge told us, 'This is your home, we will do everything we can to protect it, but I won't put my men's lives in danger to protect your house.'"

But there was one area the crew could not clear - the trees poking up from below the bluff, on land that is part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.

"It is a felony if you touch anything on that land, you will go to jail," Fuller said a ranger told her. That rule might be lifted if the fire got closer, but for now at least, the Fullers might be too close to the woods for their own good.

By last Thursday, 10 days after the fire started, it was 100 percent contained, according to the National Park Service, but not put out.

"There are still some spots of smoke in the rocks, where stumps are burning," said Todd Roeder, chief ranger at the military park. The fire is still burning below the cliff and a crew will be on site for another week or so, Roeder said, to make certain the flames don't spread.

Kate Fuller said she has learned her lesson.

"My mom is Australian, and when she visited, she told us we were in danger of wildfires," Fuller said. "I told her, 'We don't have wildfires on Lookout Mountain.'"

"I've been avoiding talking to my mom after last week," she said.

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at 423-757-6673, sjohnson@timesfreepress.com, on Twitter @stevejohnsonTFP, or on Facebook, www.facebook.com/noogahealth.