Wildfires in the Tennessee resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge have killed at least three people, prompted mass evacuations and burned dozens of homes and businesses.
The fatalities occurred in Sevier County, officials said during a Tuesday afternoon press conference. Gov. Bill Haslam said it’s the state’s largest wildfire in 100 years. More than 400 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in Sevier County, and at least 14,000 were evacuated from Gatlinburg alone overnight, officials said during a previous press briefing.
Gatlinburg Fire Chief Craig Miller, who noted that “the worst is over,” said more than 200 firefighters are “still actively fighting fire” and noted that it had been a “difficult 24 hours.” An additional 212 firefighters have been requested to help with the effort Tuesday, he added.
“This is a fire for the history books,” said Miller. “It’s like nothing many of us have ever seen.”
On Monday, residents in Gatlinburg, parts of Pigeon Forge and areas along the Spur were told to evacuate around 9 p.m., according to WATE.com. Just over an hour later, some 30 structures were on fire in Gatlinburg, including a 16-story hotel, emergency officials told the Associated Press.
Roads became packed as residents of Gatlinburg, home to 4,000, began to flee the town. Social media was replete Monday night with videos of harrowing escapes from the flames as residents attempted to flee the fire.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash told WBIR that 29 backcountry hikers were rescued from wildfires in Sevier County overnight.
“I’ve been in federal service for 25 years, and I’ve fought fires on the West Coast and the East Coast and been with the Forest Service as well,” Cash said. “Nothing that we’ve experienced in the 25 years has prepared for what we’ve experienced here in the last 24 hours. (It’s) been just unbelievable what we’ve experienced here.”
Dozens of people became trapped inside a Gatlinburg hotel when fallen trees prevented the guests from evacuating. Logan Baker, a guest at the Park Vista Hotel, told WATE that as the fire came up to the parking lot of the hotel, firefighters told him it was not safe for his family to leave.
“The only road to get down from the hotel, trees had fallen down in the road and were just engulfed in flames,” said Baker. “Then the flames came up into the parking lot and then told us we all had stay inside.”
Baker described the view from that hotel, noting the numerous small fires in the downtown area.
“It’s just engulfed. From what I can see, now there are still a few trees that are in the way, but I am also looking at the hillside past downtown Gatlinburg and I can see cabins on fire and something did explode. My aunt said one of the cabins just exploded,” said Baker.
Meanwhile, workers evacuated from a Gatlinburg aquarium voiced concerns about the thousands of animals housed there.
Ryan DeSears, general manager of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, told WBIR-TV that the building was still standing and all workers had been evacuated late Monday, reports the Associated Press. However, he said workers were anxious to return to check on the well-being of the 10,518 animals.
“We were just told by the Gatlinburg Fire Department that they had told everybody in Gatlinburg to get out,” Judy Tucker, director of Sevier County’s E-911 call center, told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “… No one’s getting through to anyone. Phones are ringing and not being answered anywhere. It’s chaos.”
Late Monday night, the National Guard was deployed to Gatlinburg to help with evacuations, WATE also reported.
“Fire officials report that fallen trees have sparked multiple fires from fallen power lines,” Cindy Ogle, Gatlinburg city manager, told WATE. “Fire agencies from multiple agencies are responding to the area fires and I can’t express enough the city’s gratitude for the assistant with the National Park.”
Gatlinburg was placed under a Level 3 state of emergency and residents were asked to stay off their cell phones unless it was for an emergency in order to keep the lines clear, according to an announcement from TEMA.
“If you’re a person of prayer, we could use your prayers,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said during a Monday morning press briefing, as reported by CNN.com.
Downtown Gatlinburg is seen under a heavy blanket of smoke on Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. (KarleeRecreated/Twitter)
Guests at the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge were evacuated from nearby cabins as the fire advanced towards Parton’s property, WATE said in a separate report, and crews were working to protect the park from the flames. As of late Monday night, no structures at Dollywood had been destroyed, according to a statement from the park.
Dolly Parton released a statement Tuesday expressing her thoughts on the fires.
“I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken. I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe. It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared,” Parton said.
The 500-acre fire quickly grew Monday fueled by 30 to 40 mph winds and is affecting the Chimney Tops and Bullhead Ridge area. Authorities say the wind has caused the fire to jump to different locations along the ridges.
The Gatlinburg Fire Department reported a wind gust to 63 mph early Monday evening, according to weather.com meteorologist Jon Erdman.
It remains unclear how much impact the rain had on the wildfires, but weather.com meteorologist Kait Parker notes that rain does not necessarily put out a wildfire.
“It has slowed it due to the wetting of the top layer and higher relative humidity but the roots and underbrush will still be burning,” said Parker.
Rainfall data from Weather Underground personal weather stations indicate most areas around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge picked up 0.25 to 0.5 inches of rain Monday night into early Tuesday, Erdman noted.