USA Three people have died in a 500-acre wildfire around Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, authorities said Tuesday, but firefighters are making significant progress thanks to rain that swept through overnight.
At least three people died in what Gov. Bill Haslam called “the largest fire in the last hundred years in the state of Tennessee.” Dozens of homes were destroyed and thousands of residents had to flee in resort towns.
At least 14 fires were burning across Sevier County outside 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.
“This is a fire for the history books,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said at a news conference Tuesday. “The likes of this has never been seen here. But the worst is definitely over with.”
Emergency officials said three resorts appeared to be affected: Westgate, Black Bear Falls and Ober Gatlinburg, an amusement park and ski area. But Ober Gatlinburg said Tuesday on Facebook that “our property is okay.”
Dollywood main attraction In the town of Pigeon Forge, named for country music superstar Dolly Parton wasn’t damaged, a spokesman said, but the fire was coming perilously close.
The theme park itself wasn’t burning, 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.
All evacuations in Pigeon Forge were lifted Tuesday afternoon, and most businesses were open, town officials announced. But Dollywood suspended 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 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. Seventy-five 75 to 100 homes in the Cobbly Nob section were also gutted.
The downtown and other areas of the town of 4,000 permanent residents were evacuated Monday night, and about 2,000 people were placed into shelters throughout the county, said Miller, the fire chief.
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.
At least 12 people were treated at hospitals in Knoxville and Nashville, three of them in critical condition with severe burns, emergency and hospital officials said, but there were no immediate reports of deaths.
Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. Bill Miller said on MSNBC that the communities were resilient and would rebuild.
“I do believe in my heart that they will,” he said.
Flames were about 50 yards from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, and the smoke forced employees to abandon the facility before ensuring that the more than 10,000 animals were OK, Ryan DeSear, general manager of Tennessee Ripley Attractions, told NBC station WBIR of Knoxville.
Police escorted an emergency team of marine biologists and other experts back to the aquarium Tuesday morning, Ripley officials said, adding that they’re “happy to report that the animals are safe.”
The aquarium had a live web camera streaming from inside before the feed went down.
Mike Gill, who was trying to leave the area along with his wife, Betty, described traffic as “horrible.”
“It’s a mass exodus,” Gill told NBC News. “A roller coaster is on fire at Goats on the Roof,” a theme park in Pigeon Forge.
Hampering firefighters have been the winds. Sustained winds were at 30 to 40 mph for about 10 to 12 hours overnight, said Cassius Cash, superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, who called the inferno “unprecedented.” The winds reached 80 mph at times.
“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 has “been just unbelievable what we’ve experienced here.”
What sparked the main fire in the national park was unclear, but officials say it appeared to have been “human-caused.”