Massive fire at historic Balls Creek Campground

By: 
Cindy Hull & Lindsay Robins
Staff Writer

Balls Creek Campground is one of the largest, old fashion, Methodist Campmeeting still active in the south.
The Balls Creek Campground story began in 1853 with worship services held under a brush arbor. A permanent structure was eventually built from logs. Earlier services used candles for light, then oil lamps and kerosene lanterns until the early 1900's when the arbor was wired for electricity. A new arbor, built-in 1935, is used for worship services during the annual Balls Creek Campmeeting held the last two weeks in August.

Until a fire destroyed or damaged an estimated forty structures on September 29, 2019, the arbor was surrounded by 304 "tents". The structures, commonly known as tents, are individual family dwellings. Tents come complete with kitchens, living and sleeping quarters, and porches for gathering. While the arbor is the heart of the campground, the tent is the heart of each family's history. Many of the tents date back 150 years, holding the memories of each generation that passes through their doors.

The September 29th fire started around 10 p.m. and quickly spread through several tents. Approximately fourteen fire departments responded, including all Catawba County departments with over forty firefighters working the fire including a fire truck with foam from Charlotte. Law enforcement agencies assisted with road closures. Local farmers and grading companies responded with bulldozers until the Forestry Service arrived. The fire was brought under control at approximately 1:20 a.m. Multiple agencies remained at the site to extinguish hot spots. Firefighters and law enforcement were still on the scene on September 30th, and will be working to determine the cause of the fire.

This is the latest in a series of significant fires at the campground. In 1956, the largest fire in the history of the campground destroyed about half of the tents on the lower side. Since then there have been two other fires but neither compared to the one in 1956 or Sunday's fire. Each time, the community comes together to rebuild, and campmeeting carries on as it has every year since 1853.

Chairman of the board of trustees, Recil Wright said, "According to our count, there were 45 tents that were either destroyed by the fire or damaged from the fire and three tents that were pushed down to form a fire break". Wright said, "From my standpoint, it was an absolute miracle that they got the fire stopped as quickly and without as much damage as could have been possible".

Due to some water issues, water had to be hauled in. A bulldozer was requested to help. Several volunteers were quick to arrive bringing their equipment with them. Mrs. McIntosh and family, brought in tractors because that's what farmers do. Wright believes that Stanly Stewart and Josh Burris can be considered heroes for helping stop the fire by making the fire break with the equipment they brought with them.

Some other people out helping last night was Buffalo Shoals IGA. When Amanda Wright heard sirens going off she didn't think much of it until the second alarm. Once she turned on the scanner she heard them say, Justin Helderman from IGA is on the phone who needs to know if you need any assistance. The call came back with a "Yes, send him". When Amanda heard that, she went into work at IGA to help by making pizzas.
Amanda said, "You do what you gotta do". While she was cooking, Helderman and his family were out delivering water and Gatorade to the crews working the fire. Amanda said, "We are a tight-knit community where you pull up your bootstraps and go".

The cause for the fire is under investigation and may take a while to find out what started the fire. Although many rumors are circulating, Wright said, "Just let the Fire Marshalls office handle the invertagations, and all of this will come out in the end", "We are spending too much energy on conspiracy theory".

For families that have generations of history at Balls Creek Campground, the tents hold a special place in their hearts. Losing a tent is akin to losing a home with one notable difference; instead of losing one’s possessions you’re losing a piece of your history, a piece of your personhood.

Every Autumn when families return to campmeeting, they’re following the footsteps of their ancestors. They walk the same paths, sit at the same tables, relax on the same porches, and worship under the same arbor. Many individuals were raised in the way of campmeeting, attending worship services and learning the role fellowship plays in life. Losing a tent for any reason, but especially to a fire, is a gut-wrenching type of heartache.

The ultimate goal is to save the arbor, and thanks to emergency responders, the arbor is safe and damage to the tents was far less than what could have been. Tents can be rebuilt, and thankfully we carry our ancestors within us.

The following has been sent out by Catawba County Emergency Management. Because of the historic and religious significance of Balls Creek Campground, the investigation into the cause of the fire is being handled by a joint task force of local, state and federal authorities. Anyone with potential criminal information related to this situation should call the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office at (828) 464-5241.

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9/29/19 10:00 pm: Large Fire encompassing several structures at Balls Creek Campground. Several people are posting videos, please share them in this thread.

Bandy’s, Catawba, Sherrill’s Ford, Maiden, Newton, Pumpkin Center, and Claremont Fire all responding. Avoid the area!

Update 10:05 pm: Fire department requesting forestry services to bring bulldozers because the fire is spreading to the woods

Update 10:15 pm: Call for all available tankers from Catawba, Lincoln, and Iredell counties.
All departments from Catawba county are now on the scene.

VERY SERIOUS SITUATION!

Update 10:45: Injuries have been confirmed!

11:10 pm update: Forestry Service is bulldozing cabins as fire is becoming more out of control

11:25 update: Requesting help from as far away as Charlotte now. The fire continues to burn out of control and spreading.

Midnight Update: If you live in the area around the campground, it seems power lines and poles may be affected. If you’ve not lost power as of now, I expect there to be a few outages in that area.

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