There’s only one way in and one way out of Wintergreen, where residents and the local fire department have called for a second emergency exit for more than a decade, and where the topography is strikingly similar to that of Gatlinburg, Tennessee—the site of the November 2016 inferno that killed 14 people and injured nearly 200 more.
“Looking at the history of fires in other resort areas with one egress route, I found it striking that it wasn’t done yet,” says Congressman Denver Riggleman, who thought approving a 450-foot second route would be fairly simple. But because the emergency exit would lead to the federally protected Blue Ridge Parkway, approving it has been a challenge.
In March, Riggleman met with the National Park Service, which will need to sign off on an easement before anyone can enter or exit from the desired point.
“The national park is very heavily regulated, as it should be,” says Wintergreen Fire and Rescue Chief Curtis Sheets. “They’re trying to preserve it in its natural state for perpetuity. We get that.”
But, says Sheets, “We want to do this in a way that has the absolute least impact to the environment as possible,” and the best place to put it would be the relatively level corridor between the northwestern corner of the Wintergreen property and the parkway.
It’s crucial to have an emergency way out of the community, which can host as many as 10,000 people on a holiday weekend, because “if something were to happen, then we could get people out of harm’s way. We just want to do all we can,” the chief says.
The best time to have dealt with it would have been in the ’70s, when Wintergreen was built, he adds.
“We admit that it was a mistake,” says Sheets. “Nobody should have ever built a community as large as Wintergreen with only one entry and exit point, but now we’re trying to fix that.”
While some folks who live at the resort worry that a second exit would be abused as a shortcut, Sheets says the fire department could drive two steel beams into the ground with a cable stretched across them, “and we could just cut the cable if we have a catastrophe.”
Another thing worrying some Wintergreen residents is the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which is drafted to cross the sole entrance to the community.
“If the pipeline crosses that entrance and explodes, it could be a catastrophe with up to 10,000 people trapped on the mountain and no way to get out,” says resident David Schwiesow, who notes that the 42-inch high pressure natural gas pipe would be difficult to control if it blows, because the cut-off valves will be between 12 and 15 miles apart.
If the emergency route is approved, the issue then becomes figuring out what to do with the folks who are ushered to the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is closed by the park service during big storms, instances of downed trees, and ice or snow, says Schwiesow.
There’s been some discussion of having Nelson County school buses come to the rescue, he says.
“But they don’t have to, and there aren’t enough of them to transport 10,000 people,” Schwiesow says. “Not to be negative, but there are a whole lot of practical issues to be resolved.”