Homeowner and rattlesnake-bite survivor says August just isn’t his month
Highlands Fire & Rescue responded to a structure fire at approx. 4:45 a.m. on Thursday at the 200 block of Foreman Road in Highlands. HFR Assistant Chief Robbie Forrester said the home was fully engulfed when fire crews arrived.
Fire crews from Cashiers-Glenville and Scaly Mountain Fire Departments also responded to help put out the blaze and prevent the fire from spreading to a guest cottage towards the rear of the property.
Fire crews prevent blaze from spreading to guest cottage
No firefighters were injured on the call and the home was vacant at the time of the fire. The cause is still under investigation.
Homeowner Scott Vuncannon said he thought his friend and HFR Chief Ryan Gearhart was calling him by mistake so early in the morning.
“He told me my place was on fire and it was totally engulfed,” said Vuncannon. “It was surreal, I was shocked and basically totally caught off guard.”
Vuncannon said the first people on the scene were HFR Firefighters Eric Pierson and Davis Picklesimer, who later told him the roof had caved in by the time they arrived and proceeded to try and stop the fire from spreading.
Vuncannon said it was sad that a home built in the 1950s had burned down, but he was thrilled fire crews were able to save the guest cottage.
He added that he was also thankful he had rescheduled a family photo session earlier this month because of a doctor appointment. If he hadn’t, the photos would have been destroyed in the fire.
“Nobody was injured, no firefighters were hurt, for them to be there and save our cottage, they are great,” said Vuncannon.
There was no storm at the time of the fire, but there were storms and lightning the previous night. The cause is still under investigation, but Vuncannon said he was told it was possible for lightning to strike and smolder for a couple of hours before igniting.
His insurance company also told him there have recently been several reports of lightning strikes in the Highlands area.
This is not Vuncannon’s first encounter with HFR. In August 2018, he went hiking with his dog, Boone, on the Ellicott Rock Trail headed towards the Chattooga River. Over 4 miles into the trail, Vuncannnon was bitten by a rattlesnake.
“I was almost to the river when I stopped and took a sip of water,” he said. “I looked over and saw movement, and then I got struck in the leg by a rattlesnake. First the snake and then the fire, August in Highlands just isn’t my month.”
Vuncannon said he used a bandanna to tie a tourniquet around his leg below the knee and knew he needed to get out of there. With no cell service he began too make his way back to his car at the trailhead, over 4 miles away.
“I stood up and started praying, I could taste the poison, I started sweating and my vision got blurry,” he said. “I made it about 650 steps before I collapsed. Then I started pulling and crawling on my hands and knees, but I kept throwing up and passing out so I didn’t get far.”
The snake bit Vuncannon at approx. 1 p.m. Scott’s wife, Nan, arrived in Highlands at 4 p.m. and was surprised Scott was not home yet and later told him she had a bad feeling. Luckily, sitting on the kitchen table was the hiking guidebook opened to the Ellicott Rock Trail.
After repeatedly calling Scott’s cell phone with no response, Nan went to the Highland Hiker to see what she could learn about the trail Scott had taken.
That’s where Nan bumped into May Lindsay Schmitt, who after hearing Nan’s concerns about Scott called HFR Chief Ryan Gearhart.
Gearhart dispatched Pierson to locate Scott at the trailhead off Horse Cove Road. Upon arrival, Pierson spotted Scott’s vehicle and hit the trail eventually reaching him at 7:30 p.m.
“He showed up and gave me water, built me a fire to prevent hypothermia, and kept reassuring me paramedics will be here soon,” said Scott.
Rescue crews arrived at approx. 9:30 p.m., including members of Cashiers-Glenville Fire Department and the Glenville-Cashiers Rescue Squad, and strapped Scott to a 2-wheel-drive off-road motorcycle, called a Rokon, and transported him out of there.
“It took 3 hours to get to the trailhead, I was in real-bad shape at that point,” said Scott.
Scott was then airlifted to Mission Hospital in Asheville by Mountain Area Medical Airlift (MAMA) team Nick Cook and Lois Hancock where he spent two weeks in the ICU.
“I don’t remember coming too until 3 days later,” said Scott. “The doctors weren’t very optimistic given my condition and told my wife I had about a 5% chance of surviving. But after 12 days of antivenom and a lot of prayers, I made it.”
It took Scott over three months to fully recover and get his strength back after the snake’s venom damaged his internal organs.
“Now I’m great, I’m back to 100%,” said Scott. “I’ve been back and hiked the trail where I was bitten, it was kind of surreal.”
He added that he will be forever thankful to those involved in his rescue.
“Eric Pierson, Davis Picklesimer, Justin Kingsland, Ryan Gearhart, Lois Hancock, and Nick Cook were some of the main people involved in my rescue,” said Scott. “However, there were 24 guys, 12 from HFR and 12 from Glenville/Cashiers area that helped save me. They are all hero’s and very-special people in our lives, and of course May Schmitt and Libby Skelley Hackney were very helpful to my wife.”
Pictured at the top of the article is an HFR firefighter hosing down hotspots the following day of the fire.
Photos related to rattlesnake rescue courtesy of Scott Vuncannon.