GATLINBURG, Tenn. — A calamitous and deadly wildfire engulfed two tourist towns near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with much of the surrounding timberlands, destroying more than 150 homes and businesses, displacing thousands of residents and visitors and shutting down one of the nation’s most popular natural attractions.
The fire has killed at least three people and injured at least 14 others, officials said Tuesday. The victims have not yet been identified.
Search and rescue efforts were underway throughout Sevier County as dusk arrived in the charred, smoke-choked mountains, but some areas remained unreachable, authorities said late Tuesday afternoon.
The blaze forced more than 14,000 people to flee the area and left “in excess of 150″ buildings in ruin, officials said.
“People were basically running for their lives,” Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.
The “unprecedented” fire — which started on the Chimney Tops mountain, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Smokies — was still burning Tuesday afternoon, emergency officials said. Strong winds and dry ground had carried the flames into the resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, moving too fast and too far to contain.
“This is a fire for the history books,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said at a news conference Tuesday.
Miller said that the Chimney Tops fire, which was reported Sunday, started to rage Monday night when winds climbed to 87 mph, carrying away fiery embers and knocking trees and power lines to the ground.
Officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park said Tuesday morning that the extensive fire and fallen trees had forced the temporary closure of the most-visited national park in America. In the surrounding towns, the sky was smoky and the ground wet with rain. Officials said the wind had died down, but a handful of buildings continued to burn.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said Tuesday afternoon that the state was sending resources, including the National Guard, to help those who had been affected by the fires.
“We will do all we can to help these communities rebuild & recover,” Haslam wrote on Twitter.
Residents evacuated the area as trees caught fire on the low slope of the hills and mountains on either side of the road — the flames’ orange tendrils licking at the asphalt and black smoke obscuring the sky.
“Fire was coming over the mountains, and the smoke was so bad we could barely breathe as we were trying to pack up,” Mike Gill, who was evacuating with his wife, Betty, told NBC News.
Katie Brittain, manager at the Dress Barn in Pigeon Forge, told The Washington Post that when she arrived at work Monday, the sky was brown and ash was raining down. Despite the ominous conditions, store employees weren’t sure whether they were supposed to evacuate from their location, not far from Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood.
She said employees stayed put but grew increasingly nervous as the smoke thickened and the wind increased that afternoon. By the end of the day, she said, the inside of the store “smelled like a bonfire.”
“The smell was really, really bad,” she said. “My eyes were burning, and our throats were getting scratchy.”
“Everyone was kind of in a state of disbelief,” she added.
At least 14 people were transported from Gatlinburg for treatment, mostly for injuries that were not life-threatening, officials said Tuesday.
In Gatlinburg, flames began engulfing private structures, including the 300-room Park Vista hotel. Inside the hotel, dozens of guests were trapped Monday by a wall of flames around the building.
Logan Baker told NBC affiliate WBIR that the firefighters initially told guests that they would be safe inside the building, but a short time later, “they saw flames coming down the hill.” By the time guests had packed their cars with luggage, however, it was too late to escape, Baker told the station, noting that the only road out was covered in flames.
“When you opened the doors, it just blew you back,” he said. “Embers started flying into the hotel.”
Baker told WBIR he helped bring people back inside the hotel; once inside, firefighters told them to remain in the lobby while they fought the fire outside.
Video taken from inside the hotel lobby shows massive flames licking at the windows. Guests can be overheard discussing a plan to “dive into the pool.”
“Well, they locked the pool up,” one woman said.
Carol Lilleaas, a Gatlinburg resident, said she fled her home with only her animals and her husband’s ashes. She does not know what has happened to her house or what she might be returning to.
“It will be there, or it won’t,” she said.
Another resident, Jeff Barker, said that he did know the extent of the fire’s destruction in his life. When he was returning from work on Monday, people were being stopped from entering Gatlinburg, he said. So Barker said he set off on foot.
“By the time I arrived at my apartment, apartment’s gone, car’s gone, pets are gone,” he said.
The fire also forced employees at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies to evacuate, leaving behind more than 10,500 animals, Ripley Attractions General Manager Ryan DeSear told WBIR.
DeSear said the blaze was about 50 yards from the building when employees had to evacuate.
“To them, every animal has a name,” he said. “You don’t give that up.” But he added: “Nothing is more important than human life. Fish can be replaced. It sucks.”
Late Tuesday morning, Ripley announced that the animals were “safe and under care.”
Gatlinburg, with a population of about 4,000 about 43 miles south of Knoxville, is surrounded on three sides by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies, part of the Appalachian mountain range, straddle the border between eastern Tennessee and North Carolina.
Considered the gateway town to the Tennessee side of the park, Gatlinburg draws more than 11 million visitors a year, according to tourism officials. It is known for its mountain chalets and ski lodge — drawing honeymooners and other visitors all year long.
Gatlinburg’s neighbor, Pigeon Forge, is home to Dollywood, country-themed music venues and attractions, and popular outlet malls.
According to the park officials, Great Smoky Mountains National Park logged more than 9.4 million visitors in 2013 — by far the most of any of the 59 national parks that year. “The second most heavily visited national park is Grand Canyon with 4.6 million visits,” according to the National Park Service.
On Tuesday, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and other officials urged residents in Sevier County to stay clear of roadways to make way for first responders and to stay off wireless devices, unless it was to make an emergency call, to keep systems clear for vital communication. The agency also announced a temporary flight restriction in the area “to prevent aircraft from complicating the response.”
“This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Michelle Hankes, executive director of the American Red Cross of East Tennessee, said about the response effort.
Hankes, who recorded a video statement at an emergency shelter in Pigeon Forge, said that about 130 people, including children and pets, have turned up there while fleeing their homes. Hundreds of others were sheltered elsewhere.
“This fire is unpredictable,” Hankes said, crying. “We still have wind gusts — the rain has helped, but it’s still a devastating, devastating loss for the people here.”
Officials said the towns and surrounding area sustained widespread property damage.
“The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now,” Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding told the Knoxville News Sentinel. But he added: “It’s the apocalypse on both sides.”
TEMA said Tuesday that “very preliminary surveys of damaged areas” suggested that “hundreds of structures are lost.”
“Westgate Resorts is likely entirely gone (more than 100 buildings),” TEMA said in a statement, “Black Bear Falls has likely lost every single cabin.” The agency initially said that Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area and Amusement Park “reportedly is entirely destroyed.” However, the mountain resort posted a video Tuesday morning showing the facility intact.
A curfew was in place for Gatlinburg, which was expected to last from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., according to the TEMA.
Officials said in a statement that Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge — the largest theme park in the area — had sustained no real damage by late Monday but that 50 rooms in the park’s DreamMore Resort and 19 of its cabins were still evacuated.
“Dollywood crews and firefighters are working to protect the park areas adjacent to a fire burning on Upper Middle Ridge,” according to the statement.
Officials in Pigeon Forge estimated that about 500 people were evacuated on Monday night, according to TEMA. About 125 people were still displaced and in shelters, TEMA said in a statement.
“Local officials in Pigeon Forge [have] lifted the mandatory evacuation order,” it said in the statement. “Gatlinburg still remains under a mandatory evacuation order.”
National park officials explained that the severe wind gusts of more than 80 mph, combined with “unprecedented low relative humidity, and extended drought conditions,” caused the fire “to spread rapidly and unpredictably.”
“Wind gusts carried burning embers long distances causing new spot fires to ignite across the north-central area of the park and into Gatlinburg,” Great Smoky Mountains National Park wrote on its Facebook page Tuesday morning. “In addition, high winds caused numerous trees to fall throughout the evening on Monday bringing down power lines across the area that ignited additional new fires that spread rapidly due to sustained winds of over 40 mph.”
The conditions made it difficult — if not impossible — for firefighters to contain the flames.
“The wind is not helping, and the rain is not here yet,” Miller, the Gatlinburg Fire Department chief, said in a news conference on Monday night. “These are the worst possible conditions imaginable.”
A severe drought — a key competent to the devastating blaze — is ongoing in eastern Tennessee. All of Sevier County is in an “exceptional drought,” which is the worst on the U.S. Drought Monitor Scale. That means there are widespread crop and pasture losses, shortages in water reservoirs, streams and wells.
Weather Underground’s Bob Henson reports that this has been the hottest and driest fall in Gatlinburg’s history. In normal years, the town averages 56 inches of rain, “so it doesn’t take much time for a drought to hit this normally moist landscape hard,” Henson wrote.
The Southeast has spent much of the past few weeks battling forest fires, which began after one of its worst droughts on record. Several states have been affected.
As The Post reported Nov. 16, when there were 17 active fires in the southern Appalachians, “the entire state of South Carolina is covered in an unhealthy haze from fires burning in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
At that time, more than 80,000 acres had been burned.
Bever, Andrews, Fritz and Holley reported from Washington.
More from Morning Mix