'Heartbroken': Tennessee fires destroy homes, churches

More than 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg, Tenn., when a series of wildfires threatened buildings across the area. (Screen capture from Twitter)Wildfires in and around the east Tennessee resort area of Gatlinburg have destroyed the facilities of at least one Southern Baptist church, claimed buildings at two other churches and prompted local believers to launch relief ministries.

The reported 14 blazes near Gatlinburg Nov. 29 were among a series of wildfires across the Southeast this fall that have led Southern Baptist Disaster Relief units to deploy in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.

In Gatlinburg, about 100 homes have been damaged or destroyed and 14,000 people have been evacuated, the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel reported, noting a 16-story hotel was among the buildings on fire.

Though media accounts Nov. 29 cited no known fatalities, Pastor Dan Spencer of First Baptist Church in Sevierville, Tenn., just north of Gatlinburg, told Baptist Press he anticipates "a sizeable number of fatalities" to be reported in the days ahead.

"As a pastor, I'm heartbroken for people in our community and our church," Spencer said. Yet "at the same time ... I'm so proud of first responders and linemen and volunteers, people just calling and saying, 'I want to help.'"

Among the worst hit churches was Roaring Fork Baptist Church in Gatlinburg, where both the worship center and family life center were a "total loss," Pastor Kim McCroskey told BP.

People from all over the U.S. have called to offer condolences and assistance, McCroskey said. The church plans to meet Sunday at a camp owned by the local Sevier County Association of Baptists, with the possibility of meeting there on a more long-term basis.

"I think God's going to take care of this," McCroskey said, "and we're going to come out of it stronger than we were before the tragedy."

Robert Nichols, director of missions for the Sevier County Association, said Roaring Fork—which averages approximately 230 in worship according to data from the Southern Baptist Convention's Annual Church Profile—was "experiencing phenomenal, incredible growth" prior to the fire. The church had paid off the debt on its family life center last year.

Nichols requested prayer that "God's Holy Spirit overwhelmingly blesses" the members of Roaring Fork "and holds them up."

First Baptist Church in Gatlinburg "lost our youth building and the custodian's residence," but "the main sanctuary is OK," Youth Minister Bryon Fortner told BP via text. "Many of our church members lost homes. It's really bad."

Fortner added, "Please pray for our community."

Gatlinburg's Banner Baptist Church also suffered loss from the fire. The congregation's fellowship hall "burned to the ground," Pastor Pete Lamon told BP, and the main building suffered smoke damage. Some church members lost their homes.

At First Baptist Sevierville, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers and local volunteers prepared some 1,500 meals Tuesday morning for distribution by the Red Cross, Tennessee Baptist Convention disaster relief specialist Wes Jones told BP. Meal preparation was expected to continue.

The approximately 20 DR workers who have been deployed in Tennessee also are working on damage assessment, providing chaplaincy services at shelters and running errands for local emergency management workers, Jones said.

About 75 people spent the night Nov. 28 at First Baptist Sevierville on pews and in classrooms, Spencer said. This included displaced individuals and firemen from Cookeville, Tenn., who were required to get a set amount of rest before deploying to fire zones.

While providing counseling at a local hospital, one First Baptist Sevierville pastor met a couple who suffered the loss of their house and experienced a miscarriage in what doctors believe was "a direct result of the fire," Spencer said, adding "several" First Baptist members lost their homes.

A scheduled musical presentation of First Baptist's living Christmas tree Dec. 4 will proceed, with the offering going to support Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief.

The Sevier County Association is collecting bottled water, blankets and food for donation to fire victims.

First Baptist Church in Pigeon Forge, which is between Gatlinburg and Sevierville, hosted two evacuated families for the night in its facility Nov. 28, held prayer with local firefighters and has determined all the congregation's shut-ins are safe, Associate Pastor Wayne Cook told BP.

Meanwhile, North Carolina Baptist Disaster Relief teams have closed two feeding units that served firefighters in the Tar Heel state. North Carolina DR workers continue to help state forestry staff with "cooking" and "house cleaning" at a state facility in Crossnore, N.C., North Carolina Baptist DR Coordinator Gaylon Moss told BP.

The Crossnore effort has included four bunk units, two shower units and a laundry unit for first responders. A firefighter from California was saved through the witness of DR workers there, Moss said.

In Georgia, Baptists operated a feeding unit for three days in the far northeastern corner of the state, the Christian Index newsjournal told BP.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.

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