The wildfires destroyed homes, personal belongings and businesses. But they also burned people’s vehicles, making it difficult for them to get to their jobs. A local man saw a need and spearheaded an effort to give donated vehicles to wildfire victims.
Michael Reifsnider is an electrician by trade, but a compassionate person at all times. He saw the loss of vehicles in the fires as a need he wanted to try to meet. He has partnered with Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministries to try to get used but working vehicles to people whose own cars were destroyed. The hope is that people will donate used cars and trucks they already own, or maybe purchase one to donate to the cause. Reifsnider himself purchased a 1990 pickup and donated it to the SMARM program.
“People need their cars,” Reifsnider said. “I wasn’t in a position to try to do this all myself, so SMARM stepped up as they always do.”
Reifsnider contacted Dick Wellons, executive director of SMARM, and the faith-based nonprofit is coordinating the new program that will give vehicles to wildfire victims.
“We thought it might be difficult to determine need on an individual basis, but we felt strongly enough about Michael’s idea to get involved,” Wellons said. “We see it as another service we can provide.”
The first vehicle donated was a 1996 Toyota Avalon. It went to a Gatlinburg family with a working mother, her disabled father and two school-age children. They actually had photos of their burned-out car. The Avalon had more than 215,000 miles, but seemed to be in good condition with no repair needs.
That’s the key to the effort. No cars or trucks that need mechanic work or tires will be accepted. SMARM accepts the word of the people donating the vehicles; it does not have the cars and trucks checked out by a mechanic.
“We want to get folks into vehicles quickly,” said Wellons. “These people don’t have money to make repairs.”
Vehicles are donated with an open title. SMARM never has ownership. Those getting a car must prove a loss, a need and assurance they’ll buy at least liability insurance immediately — it’s state law. SMARM will vet each applicant and already has a list started.
Reifsnider first mentioned the program on his Facebook page — he knew three people who had lost vehicles in the fires — and started getting calls and messages from people who need a car or think they have one to donate. He refers them all to SMARM.
For more information about donating vehicles to wildfire victims or applying for the program, call SMARM at 865-908-3153.
Vehicle donation helps Gatlinburg couple rebuild their life after wildfire.
When the flames got close and the house next door was burning down, Caleb and Julie Chase knew it was time to get out of their Gatlinburg residence. They grabbed up their two dogs and then prayed their car with the stubborn ignition switch would work.
“Usually it takes five minutes or so for the car to start,” Caleb Chase said. “This time it started right up.”
It was around 6:45 p.m. on Nov. 28, 2016 and the Gatlinburg wildfires were kicking up, getting closer and closer to the Gatlinburg Castle mansion where they lived while he was doing remodeling work.
The Chases made it down the hill, but in trying to drive over a fallen tree they damaged their car. Behind them the castle was beginning to burn down.
By the next morning the couple was homeless, out of work, without a vehicle but in the warm embrace of Tommy and Meghan Clayton. Tommy Clayton drives a tow truck and picked up the Chases and their damaged car that night, driving them around trying to find someone to buy the vehicle. The Claytons took the Chases into their home, where they live today with the Claytons’ two young daughters. Tommy Clayton did find a buyer for the car, which gave the couple much needed cash.
On Thursday, Julie and Caleb Chase took another major step in rebuilding their lives and getting back to work. Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministries gave the couple a 1990 Nissan pickup truck as part of SMARM’s new program to provide vehicles to wildfire victims who lost their cars in the wildfires.
That pickup truck was purchased and donated by Reifsnider, who has made the program his personal cause. SMARM chose the Chases from a list the agency has started of fire victims who need replacement cars.
“We are so blessed,” Julie Chase said as she signed the papers and took the keys to the pickup.
“This will allow me to get to and from work,” said Caleb Chase, a carpenter by trade.
The Chases were living in the so-called Gatlinburg Castle house overlooking downtown Gatlinburg. A landmark in the city, it was a 32,000-square-foot, five-story mansion owned by developer Kent Emmons. Caleb Chase was remodeling the house and building two new bathrooms, while he and his wife lived in an apartment on the second floor. Leaving so quickly, the Chases saved their dogs but left behind everything else, including his tools. He hasn’t been back to the site of the burned-down house.
In the meantime the donated pickup will allow him to resume an income by driving to worksites. He wants to do his part to rebuild the city.
“We are so grateful to SMARM and to Michael for making this pickup available,” Caleb Chase said. “We were so lucky and blessed to have survived that night. Now we can see what a giving and wonderful place Sevier County is.”
Dick Wellons, executive director of SMARM, said the agency is seeking used but workable vehicles to give to wildfire victims whose own cars were destroyed. Donors receive a tax write-off as well as the satisfaction of helping someone in need.
“This is another service we can provide to the community,” Wellons said. SMARM is a faith-based nonprofit that serves the needy in Sevier County.
Reifsnider was on hand as the Chases’ vehicle became the second one provided since the program began a couple of weeks ago.
“I saw that people had donated food and clothes and other material goods that were needed after the fires, but this program was to me a way to help in another meaningful way,” he said.
Feature Photo: Caleb and Julie Chase with their new 1990 Nissan pickup truck provided by Smoky Mountain Area Rescue Ministries. It replaces a car lost to the recent wildfires in Gatlinburg.