GREEN

Massive Wildfire Engulfs Tennessee Resort Towns, Kills 3

The blaze has destroyed more than 150 structures.

11/29/2016 03:36 am ET | Updated 2 days ago
  • Three people have been killed, 14 others have been transported to hospitals

  • The wildfire has damaged or destroyed over 150 structures, and firefighters continue to battle multiple structural fires

  • More than 2,000 people have checked into Red Cross shelters in the area

  • “The worst is definitely over,” according to Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller

A massive wildfire in the Tennessee resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge has destroyed more than 150 structures, including homes and businesses, authorities said Tuesday. Three people were killed and 14 others sent to area hospitals, Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said Tuesday. The identities of the three killed have not been released.

Over 14,000 people were evacuated from the affected area and more than 12,000 power outages have been reported, according to Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Dean Flener. Gatlinburg is 35 miles southeast of Knoxville and has a population of roughly 4,000 people.

“This is the largest fire in the last 100 years in the state of Tennessee,” Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said at a press conference Tuesday evening.

The National Guard was mobilized to Sevier County on Monday night to help transport firefighters, remove debris and check on residents as the fire spread across the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

“The worst is definitely over,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said Tuesday morning at a press conference, noting that there was a new focus on cleaning up and checking in with residents. However, he said, firefighters continue to battle multiple structural fires in the county.

“The next 24 hours is going to be critical,” Miller said Tuesday night, calling the wind the “single greatest concern,” as high gusts could help spread more fire.

The fire spread rapidly and widely because of wind gusts that blew up to 87 mph on Monday night, according to Miller. 

TEMA hasn’t determined the cause of the fire.

Ripley Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg evacuated all of its workers, reportedly leaving behind 10,518 animals. But the generator stayed on and staff members were “able to do what they needed to do with the animals,” Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said, confirming the aquarium is still “intact.” 

“For this specific area, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Jamie Sanders, executive assistant of public affairs for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Service, told HuffPost.

The fire started Monday night at the top of Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains outside of Gatlinburg and spread from there, Sanders said.

Sanders said she believes the fire is not actively spreading, although she noted it’s difficult to evaluate the fire’s reach because of “extremely restricted” visibility. More than 2,000 people checked into Red Cross shelters Monday night, Miller said. 

Firefighters from surrounding counties have been called in to help combat the flames. Flener recommended that those affected avoid going outside, as the agency reported heavy smoke “beginning to settle in parts of the county.” 

Weather reports indicate rain later could come later the day, but a high-wind warning was issued Tuesday morning for Sevier County, making it more difficult to contain the blaze.

“The winds don’t work in their favor, but hopefully the rain will,” Flener said.

People in the area shared images of the blaze on social media (story continues below): 

Dolly Parton’s Dollywood resort in Pigeon Forge was also evacuated, and Dollywood spokesman Pete Owens told local news station WBIR that several of its cabins had been damaged or destroyed.

“Our community has suffered through significant storm damage over the years, but nothing like this,” said Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his home and business in the fire. “Gatlinburg will rebuild, and everything will be fine.”

For information about how to help the Gatlinburg area, go here.

This story has been updated throughout as more information has become available.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote to Pigeon Forge Mayor David Wear. The quote was actually spoken by Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.

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