Tennessee plans to consolidate two local forestry departments

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. (WVLT) -- Some major changes are coming to the way the Department of Forestry fights wildfires in East Tennessee, and with those changes come some layoffs and some real concern from firefighters and a homeowner who depends on them.

The state plans to consolidate the Greeneville and Knoxville offices and put them in Morristown, but they're also cutting staff, including four of seven paid full-time firefighters, and asking them to cover twice as many counties.

That’s not good news for one woman who almost lost her home just a couple months ago.

It was just two months ago, Pless Rizzie came face to face with a wildfire.

"It came within thirty feet of my house and my house is a log cabin. I was out there with a hose myself."

For her, time was of the essence.

"It would have taken the house had we not been here -- had they not come immediately."

But a plan to consolidate the two east Tennessee forestry districts with personnel cuts is drawing concern from some area fire departments who assist the state...and response time is one of the concerns.

Blount County Fire Chief Doug McClanahan says, "For them not to be able to be there first and to help us to know what to do and how to control these things."

The state plans to cut their full time firefighting staff from seven to three after consolidating the districts.
But the biggest concern may be with the fire resource coordinator who will be responsible for 24 counties instead of 12.
A former forestry service firefighter says it's hard to go past barebones.

Wears Valley Volunteer Fire Lt. Brandon Headrick says, "Because they've already made so many cutbacks there's not enough foresters to sometimes in Sevier county to cover the fires in their own region."

State officials say they can pull resources from other areas when needed and train others to assist in the expertise of the people whose jobs will be lost.

But for Pless Rizzie, she can only hope help won't be delayed for her or others if needed.

"It would have meant the difference to me that day in having a home and not having a home to come to."

State officials also say they have compacts with other states and the federal government to assist when need be, but local departments like Blount County are concerned.

Chief McClanahan feels it will require more from departments like his to pull up the slack.

He says the dangers in East Tennessee are only going to get worse as we see more and more people build on the hillsides.

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