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Tennessee mayor: 3 killed in Gatlinburg wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses

GATLINBURG, Tennessee — Wildfires damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings in and near eastern Tennessee‘s resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in a dizzying 24 hours, officials said, but responders still are trying to evaluate the destruction caused by the flames that spread with little warning from the Great Smoky Mountains.

Now, the mayor confirms 3 people were killed.

Some major vacation attractions appeared to have been spared by the fires that spread to the communities Monday evening, and Gatlinburg’s fire chief said the worst appeared to be over Tuesday morning.

But many homes and businesses in the Gatlinburg area have been destroyed by the fires, which strong winds pushed from the wooded mountains into the more-inhabited areas Monday afternoon, authorities said. And officials still are trying to assess how much has been damaged in a vacation hub now enveloped by dingy smoke.

Wildfires have burned in parts of the Southeast for weeks; fueled by winds and the region’s worst drought in nearly a decade.

Here’s what you need to know:

• Three people have been killed, officials said Tuesday afternoon.

• More than 14,000 residents and visitors are believed to have been evacuated from Gatlinburg alone, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday morning. Evacuations also have been ordered in other communities including Pigeon Forge.

• About 12 people were taken to hospitals, Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said. Three with burns were taken to the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, the hospital said.

• Among the hundreds of structures destroyed in the area, more than 100 were in Gatlinburg, Mayor Mike Werner said Tuesday morning. That includes a 16-story hotel and an apartment complex, TEMA said.

• Werner said he believes his house is among those lost. “But things can be rebuilt. Our downtown’s intact, and that’s really great for our economy” and the city’s future, the mayor said. “We will rebuild, and we will remain the premier resort community that we are. … It will be OK.”

• Miller said about 14 active structure fires remained in the city Tuesday morning, but because winds have died down, “the worst is definitely over with.”

• Fires were at the edge of the Dollywood theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge on Tuesday morning, officials said.

• All 1,500 animals at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg are safe, the aquarium said on Twitter. Staff members were forced to evacuate from the attraction on Monday.

‘Like a perfect storm’

On Monday afternoon, a wildfire from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread into nearby communities. Strong gusts scattered embers across long distances, starting fires that fed off drought-stricken trees. The winds also knocked down power lines, igniting new fires, according to authorities.

“Everything was like a perfect storm,” Cassius Cash, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, told CNN affiliate WATE. Rain fell Monday night, but it was too late and too little to prevent damage as the region felt wind gusts in excess of 80 mph.

A major attraction, the Ober Gatlinburg ski area and amusement park that overlooks the city, appeared to be spared.

But on a road leading to the resort, what used to be homes have been reduced to burned-out husks.

Only the bricks remained intact — and that too, only in places. The insides have been eaten away by the fire.

The cars parked outside have suffered the same fate — their paint burned to ash, their tires melted away. Uprooted trees leaned on power lines. Smoke turned the sky a bleak gray.

“It is absolutely devastating,” said Mark Nagi, with the Tennessee Department of Transportation, who posted footage of the devastation on his Twitter feed.

If you are able, ‘evacuate immediately’

Authorities issued evacuation orders for Gatlinburg and nearby areas, including the north end of Pigeon Forge: “Nobody is allowed into the city at this time. If you are currently in Gatlinburg and are able to evacuate … evacuate immediately.”

Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood, the theme park owned by singer and actress Dolly Parton. At Dollywood, officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park evacuated guests from its resort and cabins as flames approached the area.

The property had not suffered any damage as of late Monday night and its crew was working to protect the park areas, Dollywood spokesman Pete Owens said.

Parton said in a statement that she was heartbroken about the fires and was “praying for all the families affected.”

“It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared,” she added.

TEMA said on its website that State Hwy. 441 heading into Gatlinburg is closed except for emergency traffic and the same highway leaving the city is open for evacuations.

Schools in Green, McMinn and Sevier counties were closed Tuesday, the agency said, and about 12,000 people in Sevier County were without power as of Tuesday morning.

Several evacuation shelters opened and about 1,300 people stayed overnight at the local community center and park. Shaken residents, some needing oxygen after inhaling so much smoke, huddled with each other at the shelters.

“We watched a building go down in flames to the right of us,” said one tearful evacuee, who was rescued by firefighters.

‘It’s just engulfed’

Despite evacuation orders, some people — including guests at one Gatlinburg hotel — could not safely leave the area as the fire advanced.

“I just see fire everywhere,” said Logan Baker, who had checked into the Park Vista Hotel on Monday. The fire swept up to the hotel parking lot, he told CNN affiliate WATE. He posted videos of the hotel doors and windows glowing from the fire looming outside.

Baker was among dozens of guests who couldn’t leave because falling trees engulfed in flames had blocked the only road out.

“We can’t go outside. The firefighters said the wind is blowing at 80 miles per hour and the debris in the air is too hard to get us down right now,” he said.

The fire had not reached the hotel, but smoke had permeated the building, making it hard to breathe, he said. Guests stood in the hotel lobby with masks over their faces.

But Baker said he felt safe so far. He said he could see downtown Gatlinburg “just engulfed” in flames with cabins on the hillside on fire. The night sky had turned orange, clogged with smoke as ash rained down.

Evacuations in national park

Elsewhere, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park evacuated employees from the Elkmont and park headquarters housing areas on Monday.

The flames proved unpredictable even for authorities as the fire blew into downtown Gatlinburg, forcing officials to evacuate their original command post at City Hall, said Dana Soehn, spokeswoman for the National Park Service. She was uncertain of the condition of City Hall.

The National Guard was activated to help fight the fire and assist in evacuations.

Fire is ‘everywhere’

Fires burned perilously close to roads and homes. Social media images and videos showed the night sky blazing bright orange from the flames.

Several roads were closed because of fire danger, stemming from dangerous weather conditions, falling trees and downed power lines. Authorities asked people who have not been instructed to evacuate to stay off the roads as evacuees crammed the streets to get to safety.

Among them was Bill May, the executive director at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg. He posted on Facebook late Monday that several of the school’s buildings had burned, but thankfully all personnel were safe.

“It is raining and winds have died down which offers hope, but the resources are stretched too thin with this much fire everywhere,” he wrote.

Facebook activated its safety check feature.