Sunday, December 11, 2016

Operation BBQ Relief - What It Is Like To Be A Volunteer

In the past few weeks, "my back yard", the Great Smoky Mountains and surrounding areas have been ravaged by wild fires.  My family's cabin on the Carolina side of the mountains was spared but up the street, the Wayah Bald fire tower built in the 1930's was burned.  On the Tennessee side, Gatlinburg was hit full force with the firestorm whipped into a rage with hurricane force winds.  Ultimately, 14 people have lost their lives and 2,400 homes and businesses were destroyed.

During times of distress like this, Fred Rogers, used to assure children...perhaps more so, adults...to look for the helpers.


Last week, I was fortunate enough to work side by side with those helpers as Operation BBQ Relief deployed at ground zero in Gatlinburg, Tennessee to feed the thousands of people who were forced from their homes and the brave first responders who were still battling the ongoing fires.  I looked into the eyes of children who had lost EVERYTHING except the clothes they had on. I saw the 1,000 yard stare on the faces of adults who were trying to figure out where to begin to start over. It was gut wrenching to witness.

But in the middle of the confusion, despair, and exhaustion that was around us, I could look to my immediate left or right and see those helpers.  Helpers from the local area handing a hot meal to soot covered fire fighters.  Helpers who drove overnight from Indiana because they saw a need. The helper who came to help because he wanted to do something meaningful for his 50th birthday. Helpers who left their families and businesses to come help strangers in need.  I saw the best of people in the worst of times.

I have talked about Operation BBQ Relief on many occasions, asking you to donate money or volunteer your time. I thought I would share what it is like to volunteer at an Operation BBQ Relief deployment, in hopes that you will SIGN UP NOW for possible future deployments or DONATE NOW.

No surprise, at first there is confusion.  We local BBQ teams were ready to roll on the first day, chomping at the bit to help, but it's not that simple.  It was an active disaster and you have to coordinate not only with everyone at OBR but also the local, state, and federal authorities. Paradise Que lead the charge for us local teams trying to assess what, where, who, and when was needed.  We just had to trust the OBR team - this isn't their first rodeo and they know what they are doing.  Out of initial chaos, you start to see the plan come together quickly. Be patient, young OBR jedi.


Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
This was my first volunteer experience with Operation BBQ Relief.

We were set up at the main evacuation center at the Rocky Top Sports Complex.  This is the shelter for the people evacuated from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and a center for the first responders.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Operation BBQ Relief partnered with The Zac Brown Band's Southern Ground for this relief event. They brought in this bad ass trailer which is a 53 foot long commercial kitchen complete with a walk in refrigerated unit and a huge covered dining area.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
The Disaster Response Team of Operation BBQ Relief brought in two trailers of Old Hickory Pits - enough to crank out over 20,000 meals a day.  That's not a guess...they have done more than that in a given day many times.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Jason W of Backdraft Barbecue in Virginia loading on more food into one of the Old Hickory Pits.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Mick and Nick!  Mick Chessor (left) left his vineyards at Grinders Switch Winery halfway across the State to come cook for OBR. Nick, another great competition cook, came over from Mississppi.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
The Operation BBQ Team knows numbers. They were constantly counting, tracking, and planning portions and meals.  Joey Rusek of Backdraft BBQ and Tommy Houston of Checkered Pig, both Virginia teams down to help out.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Alexis and I worked the service line.  On the first day, we were in the back of the house boxing up the hot meals and we had a pick up station out front.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
We could crank out batches like this in just a few minutes. Sometimes we were stocking the front pick up area.  Other times, we were making an order to be delivered off site.  Things can go slow for a few minutes then suddenly they need an order of 100 meals to go.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
The Zac Brown Band's Southern Ground Tailgate unit was phenomenal. The commercial kitchen was great and the service area out front gave first responders a place to sit, eat, and restore their energy. 

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
A group of massage therapists were on hand to give free massages to evacuees and first responders. I didn't get the name of the school/business doing this.  If anyone knows, please let me know so I can update this.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
What impressed me was the sheer number of agencies responding to this event and not just the big cities. Del Rio is a small town out in Cocke County with a population of just over 2,000. 
Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Here are 21 different fire departments that happened to be in the parking lot on Friday when I had a few minutes on break.  This doesn't include Knoxville, Gatlinburg, the military, or the many police departments that also responded. This was a mass response and every community was pitching in, even small volunteer units like Sale Creek down near Chattanooga.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Not sure where this fire truck was from but it's obviously designed for fighting in remote locations.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
My favorite logo of them all, this is from the Sevier County Wildland Task Force vehicle.


Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Thank you to all of the amazing people and organizations that donated supplies.  It was greatly appreciated by the evacuees, first responders, and volunteers.  

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Every time groups came in from the field, we were ready to feed them.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
I've never known much about the Zac Brown Band or their music, mainly because I'm old and not cool, but I can tell you that they are some great people!

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
With BBQ taking hours and hours to cook, the back of the house was always working on something. If we were serving lunch, they were already hours into getting dinner service ready. 

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Better shot showing the cooking area set up behind the Southern Ground's trailer.

Jamie Guay (right) took time away from Flat Rock Wood Room in Hendersonville, NC to come help feed folks on the front lines.  Like I said, most of the volunteers left their businesses to help.

It was very cold but the food was always hot!

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
We met and worked with so many great people, I wish that I could list everyone involved.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Every one of the BBQ cooks at this event rock but egos did not get in the way. We all just did whatever needed to get done. Restock supplies, empty trash, build boxes....you name it and someone was stepping up to do it.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Our friend, John Molloy of Dead End BBQ, came out to help.  He and I worked the service line together.  Forgive the goofy look on my face but I was trying to take a selfie with gloves on my hands, it was COLD!

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Nick checking pork loins on the Old Hickory Pit.  Zoom in and you'll see his custom Operation BBQ Relief Thermapen is reading 143°f, just about perfect.


Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
I've never been so happy to be a part of feeding people.


Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
The crews were very grateful to be receiving hot meals from some of the best BBQ cooks in the country.  It was like Alvin and the Chipmunks - we were thanking them, they were thanking us.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
The cook team loading up another batch of pork shoulders for the next day's service.  Sorry for the blurry pics but 1) it was low light and 2) these guys NEVER STOP MOVING! 

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
The weather turned grey and gloomy the next 2 days but the rain was desperately needed so it was welcomed with open arms.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
When the front of the house volunteers weren't actively serving meals, we were doing other things like moving hundreds of crates of bread, reconfiguring table set ups, and things like that.

Saturday we volunteers set up a service line out front because of the imminent rain.  Most volunteers worked in 4 hour blocks, Alexis and I stayed from start to finish, so we got to work with a lot of fantastic people throughout the day.  So many had their own story of how/why they got involved with this event.  

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
That's me in the Nibble Me This hoodie on the right.  I stole this from the OBR Facebook page but I am pretty sure that the photo credit goes to Webb Sanderson of BOH-FOH.  

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Fires were actively jumping within site of us.  Notice the puff of smoke in the bottom right corner along the black line.  It had been burning and helicopters were dropping water on it.  Suddenly the fire plume on the left middle popped up.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
The cook squad decided to make a little inter-squad BBQ competition to lighten the mood and have some fun.  The competition was specifically pork butts only and you only got to access your meat 4 times during the night- two looks, a wrap, and to pull it.  In addition to bragging rights, the winner got this amazing, world class BBQ trophy :)  

Jason Cole (Hot Cole's BBQ) stands as security while John Wheeler (Memphis BBQ Company co-owner) and Jamie Guay tabulate the judge's scores.  Yeah, we actually had 6 CBJ's on site so Alexis and 5 other judges scored this "mostly" along KCBS methods.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Time for the "awards ceremony".

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
John Wheeler and Tommy Houston were the emcees.  And the winner of the First Annual Gatlinburg Operation BBQ Relief Classic is.....

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
Jay Frankovich of the local BBQ competition team  'Merica Smokers.    We met Jay this past year after he relocated to East Tennessee from Texas (I think, Texas, right?).  Great family and a formidable competitor.

Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
This is just one of the many crews with whom we volunteered.  Like I said, we met so many cool, wonderful people from nearby and all over the country.
Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
There were so many volunteers that there is no way I could mention them all but these two deserve special thanks.  Melanie Edmonds (Paradise Que BBQ) and April Bryan (Q We Do) were absolute rock stars. They coordinated all of the volunteers for the event which is kind of like trying to herd wet cats that were just taken off of ADHD medicine. This was way more than just getting people to show up - it was coordinating the activities of every non-cook volunteer and working with the back of the house to ensure everything flowed smoothly.  


Gatlinburg wildfire 2016 Operation BBQ Relief Deployment
John Wheeler (center right) and Tommy Houston (far right) with two men from the Oak Ridge Fire Department.  John and Tommy were the ones in charge of this deployment, making sure that everything came together.  These guys had a tough job and ran it perfectly.  

I would not hesitate to volunteer for Operation BBQ Relief again, I would do it in a heart beat.  I know people don't volunteer based on "what's in it for me" but....here's what is in it for you:

  1. You get to meet some of the best people in your area - let's face it, only good people are going to be selfless enough to do this.  
  2. You get to reduce suffering in a real and meaningful way rather than sitting at home and "wishing there was something we could do".  I mean Facebook likes are cool and all but they don't put a warm meal in someone's belly.
  3. If you are a BBQ cook, you get to work "in the trenches" with some of the best BBQ cooks in the country.  I had several conversations with different pitmasters about techniques and ideas.
  4. The BBQ competition circuit is already a family. But when you work together at something like this, you develop a special bond with your fellow competition teams.
Long story short, I'm a better person for having worked with these people.  


Operation BBQ Relief formed in the debris of the Joplin tornado disaster and has gone on in that short time to feed over 1 million meals to people in the wake of disasters.  Unlike some relief organizations, the officers of Operation BBQ Relief receive ZERO SALARY so your cash donations go directly to helping people in need - not fancy offices or exorbitant salaries.  I am NOT a spokesman for OBR and don't speak for them, I'm just a volunteer and these are my observations. You can DONATE or VOLUNTEER at their website.

2 comments:

  1. I don't even know where to begin with all of this! First of all, thanks for taking the time to upload and post all of these photos. What a wonderful thing that so many people have come together to do. And how great for you to be able to be a part of this. I can't imagine how grateful everyone was for each and every one of you to be there to help them through this. We're no stranger to wild fires here in Colorado, and I've only seen through local news station show hard these people work to fight fires and rescue people and animals. Kudos to all who helped in every single way. And finally - love that Tazmanian Devil logo.

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  2. I LOVE that you were able to be a part of this wonderful event! I am glad your family cabin survived the fire but so sad for all the devastation in the area. Sending thoughts & prayers to those affected.

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