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'Live for the future' | Gatlinburg homeowner works for change as he reflects on wildfire

Pete Jucker's house burned to the ground in the 2016 Sevier County wildfires. He's since rebuilt but not stopped strengthening his community.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — It's been five years since Pete Jucker and his wife, Joy, lost their home in the Chalet Village neighborhood to the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfire.

"I don't remember having a dream about it for two or three years now. I used to dream about it, but the images are still pretty vivid in my head," Jucker said.  

Fire may have consumed his home, but flames have not touched Pete's spirit. 

"I'm a very forward-looking guy. I try not to live in the past," Pete said. "I remember, I don't dwell on it. I try to make things better than they used to be. That's just part of who I am. Live for the future, and don't live for the past."

We first met the Juckers the week of the fires in November 2016. Even then, Pete was staying positive. He hung flags bearing the words "heal and rebuild" on his neighbor's mailboxes in front of their damaged homes.    

RELATED: Jucker family continues rebuilding, encouraging others two months after fires

While Pete and Joy began rebuilding their own home, Pete saw a need for education and awareness. So he worked to bring the Firewise USA program to the Chalet Village community.

Firewise is a national program the helps homeowners protect their property and encourages them to rebuild a better structure. 

RELATED: Heal & Rebuild: Jucker family stays positive 1 year after fires

"So rebuild with better materials, non-flammable materials and rebuild in a way and maintain the area in a way that will help us," Jucker said.

The initiative works to educate on reducing the risk of fire while also offering grants. In the first year, the Chalet Village program received $20,000 that Jucker put towards gear like a wood chipper, leaf vacuums and chainsaws. 

Every year he applies for more grant money to maintain the equipment that is used to help with property maintenance.

RELATED: Construction advances on Gatlinburg family home

"Mother Nature doesn't sleep," Jucker said. "If you look at some of the trees, they grow, some of them can grow feet a year. If we don't do this on a steady basis, we have an accumulation of brush. The more it accumulates, the more in the fall, it will start to decompose and create what we call 'fuel jackpots.'"

Now, you'll often see Pete with a chainsaw in his hands or toting around a large chipper, sharing what he's learned with others who will listen.  

Credit: WBIR
Pete processes tree trimmings into a wood chipper during a cleanup in the Chalet Village neighborhood.

On the day we caught up with him, he was busy trimming overhanging trees to make a potential escape route safe for a rental property. 

The house belongs to Rebecca Helton, who runs Great Smoky Mountain Vacations, a rental management agency. She also owns several of her own vacation properties.  

Credit: WBIR
Rebecca Helton shares why she's making her properties Firewise.

"I was raised here in the Smoky Mountains. My mother grew up in the Smoky Mountains, born and raised here," Helton said. "And prior to the fire, so we had about 30 cabins that we were managing, but we lost quite a few of them in the fire."

Helton and her husband got connected with Pete and Firewise to preserve the legacy of their business and property. Pete hopes others like them will do the same.

"So at least the neighbors that listen won't lose what they've worked very hard to make here in our beautiful mountains," Jucker said.

RELATED: Family displaced by wildfire celebrates first Thanksgiving in rebuilt home

Running Firewise and helping neighbors is a big commitment for the Good Samaritan. Jucker does this in his free time while also running three businesses and working with the ski patrol at Ober Gatlinburg, but he wants to initiate change.

Credit: WBIR
Pete Jucker shares the vision behind Firewise USA and why he continues to advocate for the program and share knowledge with his neighbors.

He believes his home would still be here if he had had the knowledge he does now.

"The information was out there. People don't listen. They don't want to hear it because they have their lives to live, and it's not important until it actually happens to you. So after the fire, it became important to me," Jucker said.

Whatever the future holds, he wants his community to be prepared.

"I can only get something started here and Chalet village. I won't live forever, but I hope to get the neighbors involved and our families at least knowledgeable enough about Firewise so they can pass it on because Mother Nature doesn't sleep. She grows every season. It keeps coming back, and we have to maintain," he said.

You can join and learn more about Chalet Village's Firewise program here.

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