Update: Walland Elementary kids won't return to class Tuesday

Firefighters from all over the country are still working to gain control of the wildfire in Walland, robbing the fire of fuel in an effort to stop it.

BLOUNT COUNTY - Update at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Nov. 21: Walland Elementary School will remain closed Tuesday due to the ongoing wildfire in Blount County.

Blount County Schools made the announcement on Facebook at 8:37 a.m. Monday.

Walland Elementary School will remain closed the rest of the week due to Thanksgiving.

Fire crews in the area spent the day reinforcing existing fire lines, said Dept. of Forestry spokesperson Nathan Waters.

"We're going to have to improve those," he said. "We had some trees come down yesterday, and we're still cleaning those out."

They hope to get the fire contained before it grows beyond 1500 acres.

"We've got some good lines, but we want to reinforce those so all the residences are safe there," Waters added.

Crews from East Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were joined Monday by backcountry firefighters from Alaska and Oregon, Waters said.

There are also crews in from Florida. Andrew Gill usually works as a firefighter in Everglades National Park in South Florida. He was working with a mixed brush crew clearing fuel out of the fire's path.

"It's very labor intensive, this area specifically," he said. "Lots of hills here, unbroken country."

Crews on the ground were supported by Air National Guard helicopters flying overhead delivering water.

With no rain in sight, that may be the only water falling from the sky -- but the weather story was not all bleak, said Waters.

"You know, the good thing with the colder weather is it takes some of the heat away, maybe some of the intensity," said Waters.

Update at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20: A wildfire in Blount County will keep Walland Elementary students from going to class on Monday.

It marks the second full day the school has closed since the fire first began burning on Thursday. 

The wildfire has since grown to 1,055 acres in size, according to East Tennessee District Forester Nathan Waters. 

Director of Schools Rob Britt told 10News all other Blount County Schools will be operating on a regular schedule. Britt said several district officials were keeping in communication with fire and emergency management officials to eliminate any risk before students return to the building.

Britt estimates parents should be notified about any potential Tuesday closures by 2 p.m. Monday. 

The closures are leaving some parents looking for last minute caretaking plans for their students.

"You can't come up with a babysitter, especially a special needs child, without a 24-hour notice because almost everyone these days works," said Brandy Keller, whose 6-year-old daughter attends Walland.

The school first dismissed students early on Thursday, but Keller said the school did not notify her until after her daughter -- who has autism -- was already dropped off.

"Our video doorbell actually well off and it was her at the doorstep crying," she said. "We had no idea they were even dismissing, so we just went home as quickly as we could."

Britt admitted notifications did go out late on Thursday due to a "system glitch" in the district's new automated phone system. He says officials have worked out those kinks and, in the future, will delay dismissal until the system catches up. 

As for potential closures after Monday, a district team is working closely with fire official and evaluating risk on a day-by-day basis.

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As of Sunday at 5:30 p.m., the Department of Agriculture said the East Millers Cove fire was 75 percent contained and could grow past its 1,100 acre estimate.

A representative with the Department of Forestry and the Department of Agriculture originally released information Saturday saying the fire had doubled in size to 2,160 acres. Waters said that figure was completely inaccurate, and they've since corrected the measurement.

The Division of Forestry responded to 29 new fires statewide covering more than 700 acres over the weekend. Nine of those fires were in East Tennessee, including six that are suspected arson and one that was caused by a tossed cigarette, the department said. 

Firefighters had been working to establish containment lines around the fire burning just a few hundred yards from Walland Elementary School.

The fire was first spotted around 1 p.m. Thursday, and was around 200 acres in size as of Thursday night, according to Blount County fire officials. 

“It’s less than a half a mile. It looks closer than it is,” said Bruce Thompson as he watched the orange glow creep closer on Thursday.

Thompson's home is one of many firefighters jumped into action to protect.

“I was okay when we first got home but as I seen it come this way a little further and glow more and burn more I started getting a little nervous and you got home and we actually started loading the valuables up,” Thompson said.

Hundreds of students at Walland Elementary evacuated "extremely smoothly" Thursday afternoon as the wildfire billowed into the sky nearby, Blount County Schools Superintendent Rob Britt said.

"It was orderly," Britt said Thursday afternoon. "There was no chaos."

Blount County Fire Chief Doug McClanahan said the fire looks bigger than it is because of all the smoke. 

"It looks like a mountain fire, it's going up the mountain. I think it's already crested over one ridge. It's very smoky," McClanahan said describing the scene. 

“We’ve been living on the edge, we know that, and every day we wake up and thank the good Lord that it didn’t happen, but today it happened,” he said. 

About 325 students at Walland Elementary School were moved off school grounds in the hilly community to the Walland football field Thursday afternoon. Buses were sent to the field to pick up the children, and parents were notified, Britt said.

The superintendent said it was his understanding a custodian first spotted the fire and alerted educators. He couldn't estimate just how close the fire was to the school.

Britt estimated the whole evacuation procedure took an hour to 90 minutes. The school first posted a notice on Facebook page about the fire around 1 p.m.

"We were fortunate to get our children out safe and into the hands of their parents," he said.

Britt said he was worried about the school itself because of its proximity to the fire, which could be seen for miles away, a column of smoke towering above the site.

The superintendent praised Blount County Sheriff's Office personnel and Blount County fire personnel for their response at the scene.

A spokesperson with the Sheriff's Office told 10News the fire was about 300 yards behind the school. They also launched a drone to get a better view of the situation. 

Ken and Cheryl LaValley live just up the road, and said neighbors were considering evacuating as they watched ash rain down.

"Right now I just want to get home. It's scary to look up and see what's going on and how quick it spread," Ken LaValley said. 

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry responded to 17 new fires that covered 391 acres statewide Thursday. Six of those fires are in East Tennessee - one was caused by escaped debris, the cause of the other five, including the fire in Walland, is currently unknown. 

Mobile Users: Click here to view the photo gallery of smoke coming from the brush fire

Interactive map of U.S. Wildfires from the Southern Area Coordination Center:

(© 2016 WBIR)


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