‘Worst possible conditions’: Residents flee Gatlinburg, Tenn., as flames engulf popular resort town – Washington Post
Parts of two popular Tennessee tourist towns on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park were on fire Tuesday morning, along with much of the timberlands surrounding them.
A fire burning on the Chimney Tops mountain, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Smokies, spread to the quaint resort cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., as emergency officials ordered evacuations throughout Sevier County and shut down the park.
There were no reports of fatalities as of Tuesday morning, but the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said that three people with severe burns were transferred from University of Tennessee’s Knoxville hospital to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville overnight. A fourth with facial burns continues to be evaluated at the hospital in Knoxville, TEMA said.
Property damage is widespread: 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), Black Bear Falls has likely lost every single cabin, Ober Gatlinburg reportedly is entirely destroyed,” TEMA said.
The agency estimated that more than 14,000 visitors and residents were evacuated from Gatlinburg, with thousands more being forced to flee Pigeon Forge and other towns and villages in the area.
The fire exploded from 10 acres Sunday night into a 500-acre blaze Monday night, according to Reuters.
The mountain is part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where “extreme weather conditions … led to the exponential spread of fires,” park officials said.
“Conditions remain extremely dangerous with trees expected to continue to fall,” officials at the country’s most visited national park wrote Tuesday morning on Facebook. “Officials are asking that motorists stay off the roadways throughout the area. Travel in the Gatlinburg area is limited to emergency traffic only.”
“Even with the rain that is currently falling there, the fires continue to burn and structures remain engulfed with little hope that the rainfall will bring immediate relief,” TEMA said Tuesday.
As the fires began engulfing private structures, including the 300-room Park Vista hotel in downtown Gatlinburg, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency declared a Level 3 state of emergency.
This was just sent to us by a friend in Gatlinburg. This is on Airport Road up by Sidney James Lodge. pic.twitter.com/xhrgtqj6el
— Rep. Jason Zachary (@JasonZacharyTN) November 29, 2016
According to TEMA, “Evacuations are underway for Downtown Gatlinburg, and also Mynatt Park, Park Vista and Ski Mounty in Gatlinburg, and for the south part of Pigeon Forge close to Sevierville.”
No fatalities have been reported, and more than 1,300 people have been sheltered at the Gatlinburg Community Center and at Rocky Top Sports World, a sports facility in town.
“It’s very dangerous weather conditions,” Dana Soehn, spokeswoman for the National Park Service, told WATE-TV. “We’ve had trees coming down, limbs coming down and the fire is continuing to grow.”
According to park officials, severe wind gusts over 80 miles per hour were reported Monday. Combined with “unprecedented low relative humidity, and extended drought conditions,” the 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,” the park said. “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 downright impossible, for firefighters to contain the flames.