Crews from the Tennessee Forestry Division and Hawkins County volunteer fire departments worked to contain a fire that destroyed buildings at Pressmen's Home Thursday. Ned Jilton II photo.
ROGERSVILLE — A trash fire that got out of control Thursday afternoon in rural Hawkins County destroyed four buildings on the Pressmen’s Home grounds and was expected to scorch as much as 200 acres by this morning.
Tennessee Forestry Division crews joined several Hawkins County volunteer fire departments attempting to halt the spread of the fire as it threatened several residences along Route 94, as well as mountain residences and homes on the other side of the mountain in Poor Valley.
The Pressmen’s Home, located on Route 94 about 10 miles north of Rogersville, was the headquarters for the International Printing Pressmen and Assistants Union of North America from 1911-67. The campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places despite its current state of decay and disrepair.
The fire began around 1:30 p.m. — reportedly as renovation workers were burning scrap wood. Authorities said a gust of wind swept burning embers into the dry woods across the road from the former Hotel Pressuaina.
A state Forestry Division helicopter arrived around 2:30 p.m. and continued relaying water from the nearby Pressmen’s Home Lake to the burning mountainside via a large scoop hanging from beneath the chopper with cables.
By sundown crews had the fire contained to the east but anticipated it continuing to burn throughout the night into morning before reaching firebreaks to the west that were cut into the woods with a bulldozer.
The high winds that helped start and spread the initial forest fire kept it fanned throughout the late afternoon and early evening, making life hard on the firefighters.
Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Murrell said he expected firefighters to continue battling the spread of the flames past midnight.
“We’ve lost four structures, several others are being threatened, and we’ve got about 75 acres burning out of control at this time,” Murrell told the Times-News from the scene around 2 p.m. “We’ve got six or seven fire departments here, two or three crews from Forestry, and the Forest Service is en route with a helicopter. The wind is killing us right now.
“It’s all the way to the top of the mountain, and it’s fixing to cross over into Willis Road, and we’ve got departments standing by there now. We’ve got mobile homes, barns and houses (being threatened).”
Among the structures lost was the Pressmen’s Home consortium building, as well as three other nearby buildings that had been used recently for storage.
The Times-News made contact with Murrell again around 8:30 p.m. Thursday, at which time he said several of the volunteer firefighters were being sent home because fire lines had been cut around homes and they would be safe.
By sundown about 150 acres had burned, but Murrell anticipated the toll to rise to 200 acres before the fire reached the break lines to the west.
Several volunteer fire departments assisted at Pressmen’s Home with manpower and equipment including Striggersville, Lakeview, Persia, Stanley Valley, Carters Valley, Clinch Valley and Bulls Gap.
In late afternoon Lakeview Fire Chief Jim Klepper stood watch with two fire trucks behind a row of houses near the fire scene on Route 94. Although the wind was blowing away at the time, he said wind direction in that mountainous area can change at any moment and shift the movement of the fire.
Veteran Persia firefighter Chili Sanders said the fire should be a lesson to others regarding outdoor burning.
“I’d like to remind everybody not to burn on windy days like this when it’s dry,” Sanders said. “Especially this summer when it’s supposed to be really dry. Take into consideration your neighbors and all the firefighters and don’t do it.
“The wind is blowing, it’s dry, and it’s all the way to the top of the mountain and just keeps going. We’ve got everybody coming in here to help. Just one little act of burning, and that’s what it costs.”