Smokies Wildfire Forces Evacuation of Over 14K as Flames Threaten Tourist Towns

Erik Ortiz
Fire erupts on both sides of Highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016.
Jessica Tezak | Knoxville News Sentinel | AP

A wind-swept wildfire continued to rage across more than 500 acres of Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Tuesday, destroying dozens of homes in resort towns and forcing thousands of residents to flee.

At least 14 fires were burning across Sevier County outside of Knoxville, authorities said, ravaging parts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge — communities considered the gateways to the national park and home to popular tourist destinations such as Dollywood.

While officials said the worst of the destruction was likely over after rains swept across the region into early Tuesday, daylight revealed a lingering blanket of hazy smoke and swaths of destruction.

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More than 150 structures were burned in the county, mostly in Gatlinburg, officials said at a news conference Tuesday morning. Over 400 firefighters were deployed in shifts to tamp down the hot spots.

Emergency officials said three resorts appeared to be impacted: Westgate, Black Bear Falls and Ober Gatlinburg, an amusement park and ski area. But the Ober Gatlinburg resort said Tuesday on Facebook that "our property is okay."

In the town of Pigeon Forge, its main attraction Dollywood — named after country superstar Dolly Parton — was not damaged, a spokesman said, but the fire was coming perilously close.

The theme park itself was not destroyed, although more than a dozen cabins it manages were burned. Families staying in 50 rooms at the park's DreamMoore Resort as well as 19 cabins on the property had to be evacuated.

The park suspended its operations through at least Wednesday.

"I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken," Parton said in a statement, adding, "It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared."

Parton, a native of Sevier County, had released a public service announcement with Smokey the Bear on Sunday just hours before the wildfires erupted. She warned of forest fires and troubling drought conditions.

In neighboring Gatlinburg, the scene was utter devastation: About half of the town's 10 square miles were affected with more than 100 structures damaged, including a 16-story hotel and an apartment complex, officials said. About 75 to 100 homes in the Cobbly Nob section were also gutted.

The downtown and other areas were evacuated Monday night from the town of 4,000 permanent residents, and about 2,000 people were placed into shelters throughout the county, said Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller.

As many as 14,000 residents and visitors were believed to have been evacuated from Gatlinburg, where power was knocked out to nearly 12,000.

Twelve people were treated for non-life-threatening injuries at area hospitals, including for severe burns. There were no immediate reports of fatalities.

Lt. Bill Miller, of Tennessee Highway Patrol, said on MSNBC that the communities are resilient and would rebuild.

"I do believe in my heart that they will," he said.

Flames were about 50 yards away from Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, and the smoke from the fires required employees to abandon the facility before ensuring the more than 10,000 animals were OK, Tennessee Ripley Attractions General Manager Ryan DeSear told NBC affiliate WBIR.

"As long as we have fuel in our generators, that aquarium can run on its own," DeSear said. The aquarium had a live web camera streaming from inside before the feed went down.

"The traffic is horrible. It's a mass exodus," Mike Gill, who was trying to leave the area along with his wife, Betty, told NBC News. "A roller coaster is on fire at Goats on the Roof," a theme park in Pigeon Forge.

Hampering firefighters battling the blaze have been the winds. Sustained winds were at 30 to 40 mph for about 10 to 12 hours overnight, said Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash, who called the area inferno "unprecedented." The winds at times reached 80 mph.

"Nothing that we've experienced in the 24 hours has prepared for what we've experienced here in the last 24 hours," Cash told WBIR. "[It's] been just unbelievable what we've experienced here."

"We urge the public to pray," Miller added at a news conference Monday night. "I know that it's hard to potentially think about losing a home or a place that you've worked your entire life to build, but we are dealing with a situation that is very dynamic."

What sparked the main fire in the national park was unclear, but officials say it appears to be "human-caused."