Mark Wilbanks: Saved by a nose

Tom KingOur Town Heroes, Powell

Mark Wilbanks came close – too close for comfort – to calling 911 to report a house on fire. His house. In Powell. At 2 a.m. last Tuesday at the start of Mother Nature’s snow dump. Which leads me to present our first ever “Our Town Hero Spouse.”

Two things you need to know – Wilbanks is an assistant chief at the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD), a 25-year veteran, and also its public information officer. His hero wife is Renee, who works at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital and has perhaps the most sensitive nose in town.

Wilbanks, an East Tennessee native, has worked as KFD health and safety officer, an emergency medical services tech and division quality control officer. He is a master firefighter, and he’s a certified critical care paramedic and a hazardous materials specialist. Prior to KFD, he spent eight years in U.S. Marine Corps.

Chief Mark Wilbanks and family visit his father, Richard (seated): Sarah, Chris, Mark and Renee. Not pictured is Brandon.

After working a 16-hour day as part of the emergency management team dealing with this weather event, Mark got home Jan. 15 a little after 11 p.m. He got to bed around midnight and was due back to work at 7 a.m. Mark tells us the rest of the story.

“At exactly 2 a.m. Renee shot up out of bed and woke me up. She said ‘something’s burning,’ but I could not smell anything. We got up and started going through the house. I checked the attic above our bedroom. It was OK. I still could not smell anything. She was downstairs and when I got down there, I could smell a strong electrical burn.

“At first, I thought it was something outside burning that we could smell. Then she went into our garage and said it was a lot stronger smell there and she was right. Our bonus room is above the garage so I went up the stairs and opened the doors to the furnace room. There was thick smoke and it was venting to the outside through our roof vent, which is why the smoke alarm just outside the furnace room three feet away did not activate.”

Here is the real scary part. “Had Renee not smelled this from our bedroom and gotten us up, we would have had flames in less than 10 minutes, burning into our roof and outside on the vinyl siding. It would have been a true house fire and the closest station to us is Rural Metro’s Station 31 on Old Clinton Pike. And in the weather and road conditions, no way they could have gotten to us in time.”

He pulled the screen off the HVAC unit and could instantly tell it was burning. “I flipped the switch and killed our power quickly to shut the unit down,” he said.

Also sleeping at home that night was their daughter, Sarah. They have two other adult children. Chris is a KFD firefighter stationed at headquarters downtown, and Brandon is at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, about to earn his doctorate in molecular biology.

For the past week, with the heating unit shut down, the family has been using the gas fireplace and a second HVAC unit to heat the home. Mark is hoping the burned-up unit gets replaced this week.

Wilbanks shared what went through his mind that night: “It was very shocking and very, very scary. Once it was over it hit me as to what could have happened. It really terrified Renee. She knows we could have lost our house and maybe more. It could have been really bad. Our house didn’t burn and in the scheme of things it was very minor. I will say that we were very lucky.”

Anything else? “Yes. Renee told me: ‘Maybe next time you’ll listen to me instead of being your calm, cool firefighter persona.’”

Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia. If you have someone you think we should consider featuring, please email him at the link with his name or text him at 865-659-3562.


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