Ocoee Whitewater Center burns to the ground

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The iconic Ocoee Whitewater Center near Ducktown, Tennessee – host of the whitewater slalom event for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta – burned down to the ground.

Polk County EMA Director Steve Lofty said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the fire had already engulfed about 90% of the structure by the time a full fire response arrived at the scene. the Ocoee River.

“It’s a huge loss for the community here,” Lofty said.

(READ MORE: Ocoee: a river runs through it)

Lofty said fire crews were already in the area — about two miles away — putting out a tractor-trailer fire when dispatchers first learned of the blaze at 11:53 p.m. Monday.

U.S. Highway 64 was closed as firefighters battled the truck fire when another driver reported spotting a fire at the Whitewater Center as the driver descended a nearby mountain road, he said .

“The first teams that were there responded to the Whitewater Center, and then we asked for mutual aid from about 12 other departments,” Lofty said.

There is no known link between the two fires, he said.

The growing fire at the Whitewater Center was outpacing the response, he said.

(READ MORE: The Ocoee River site transformed Polk County 20 years ago during the Olympics)

“More than half of the structure was on fire before we even got there,” he said.

The open store area in the building was on the verge of collapse when firefighters began arriving, he said.

“By the time we got enough resources there, the other side was on fire,” he said. “We just didn’t have enough water and enough resources to control it. It was so advanced before we knew it was burning, there wasn’t really any hope.

“When we started removing him, he was about 90% involved,” he said.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center was built to host the Atlanta Summer Olympics in 1996. For two days in 1996, the world’s best whitewater paddlers dazzled crowds that exceeded the entire population of Polk County, culmination of a years-long process that brought the Olympics to the remote hills of the Cherokee National Forest, the Chattanooga Times Free Press previously reported. reported.

The International Olympic Committee announced the Ocoee River as the host site for the 1996 Olympic canoe/kayak slalom competition in December 1992, records show.

Polk County Executive Robby M. Hatcher said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the loss is a blow to the rafting community and Polk County as a whole.

“The Whitewater Center was a sought after tourist destination in our county, and it will be a big loss,” Hatcher said.

He said he was still in high school during the Olympics and was unable to attend the events in 1996. The building has not been occupied for about two years due to the pandemic.

“It was the centerpiece of the whitewater site,” Hatcher said, noting that the loss will be a blow to the whitewater community. “I understand they were planning to open the Whitewater Center this year. Now that’s not going to happen.”

Uncertain future

US Forest Service officials said it was too early to tell if the center would be rebuilt.

“We just don’t know yet,” spokeswoman Ashley Miller said in an email on Tuesday. “We are all truly shocked and saddened.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is investigating the cause of the fire, Miller said. No one is allowed on site until their investigation is complete, she said. This means that the center and some associated trails are closed.

The list of closures includes the Rhododendron Trail, Bear Paw Loop Trail, Old Copper Road Trail, 64 Connector Path and Chestnut Mountain Loop/Bear Paw Connector Trail, according to the Forest Service.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center remained a vital part of the river community after the Olympics, she said.

“It is a key recreation site in the forest and sees around 300,000 visitors a year,” she said.

The loss weighs heavily on everyone connected to the center and the river, Acting Cherokee National Forest Supervisor Mike Wright said in a statement Tuesday.

(READ MORE: Paddling competition returns to Upper Ocoee for the first time after 9/11)

“First of all, we are so grateful that no one was injured during the fire and grateful to our partners for their assistance in bringing the fire under control and investigating the cause,” Wright said. “The Ocoee Whitewater Center was a unique site, not just here in the Cherokee National Forest, but throughout the Forest Service. It’s a tough loss for us.”

Ocoee Outfitters

Whitewater businesses in the Ocoee area shouldn’t see too much of an impact, according to Ryan Cooke, president of the Ocoee River Outfitters Association.

He got the first word of the fire as a text message at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

“Personally, from my company and as president of the Outfitters Association, I’m shocked. It’s heartbreaking,” Cooke said. “The Outfitters Association is saddened and in disbelief at the Whitewater Center fire, but we are open for business. But it will not impact rafting operations on the Ocoee.”

Cooke said the center and its ownership were the product of teamwork.

“A lot of local effort went into getting this whitewater center built in 1994 and 1995 before the Olympics came to town,” he said.

Although rafting companies do not use center property, many transients who wish to watch paddlers on the river could safely approach the river on center grounds, even though the building has been closed for the past two years.

“We were able to go rafting without the Whitewater Center,” he said. “I don’t foresee any difficulty with rafting.”

(READ MORE: Ocoee rafting industry sees growing business flow as pandemic eases)

Cooke said the property was a place for spectators to watch the paddlers.

“I think the Whitewater Center was a draw for people who didn’t really do rafting,” he said. “They would go out there and watch the rafting and a lot of times it was a draw because people would see rafters going by and say, ‘Hey, I want to do this. “”

Cooke said he hoped the bad news about the fire wouldn’t keep anyone away from the river and its outfitters.

“All Ocoee outfitters will be open for business and we will be rafting next weekend,” he said.

“The first release for the 2022 rafting season on the upper river will be on May 7,” Cooke said of the Ducktown end of the river.

After May 7, releases on the upper Ocoee will take place on Saturdays and Sundays until September 10, he said.

A look back

A Hixson, Tennessee man, now retired from the Forest Service, worked on the original project along the banks of the Ocoee in the 1990s. Paul Wright was the project manager working for the Forest Service who led the project. team that planned, designed and built the Whitewater Center from 1992 to 1996, he said.

“When we were working on the Olympics in the ’90s, the Forest Service had absolutely no interest in doing that at first,” Wright said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

But state officials were motivated and pressed their federal counterparts to back the idea of ​​building it for Tennessee’s Ocoee River community, Wright said.

“I think we did a good job,” he said of the final product. “As I like to tell everyone who listens, we built the Whitewater Center because of the Olympics, not for the Olympics,” he said in a follow-up email. The investment was a “sustainable economic stimulus for the people of the Ocoee area…where tourism associated with the river is the main industry.”

Wright said the Whitewater Center is made up of all of the properties, walkways, rocks, exterior features and river additions that created the Olympic site, and the administration building was its centerpiece.

“The administration building that burned down last night was the focal point of the $16 million Ocoee Whitewater Center, completed in July 1996,” he said. “The administration building represents approximately 15% of the total capital investment on the site.”

“We fought for $2.4 million to build the thing,” he said of the roughly 7,600-square-foot building in the center that included large amounts of hardwood donated by a member. of the Appalachian Hardwood Manufacturers Association.

The fire also swept away a number of Olympic artifacts, Wright said.

Wright now wonders about the future of the burned building.

“It’s a really tragic thing that happened. It was a waste,” he said. “In the future, what will happen? The Forest Service budget is bleak, and I don’t know if they can rebuild it.

Wright hopes for ideas from state and federal lawmakers.

Lofty said investigators will investigate the scene of the fire in the coming days, but not because of suspected foul play.

“It’s not that we suspect arson, but it was such a big fire that we want to cover all bases,” he said.

Firefighters used more than 100,000 gallons of water from tank trucks to fight the blaze, as well as water from a fire hydrant in the center.

Firefighters from Bradley County, Cleveland, Englewood, Etowah, Wolf Creek and East and West Polk County Fire Departments, Fannin County, Georgia, Hiwassee Dam and Culberson Volunteer Fire Departments in Murphy , North Carolina, and others have responded, Lofty said.

The Whitewater Center is administered by the Cherokee National Forest.

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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