Wildfires scorch tourist area in Tennessee; thousands flee
GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Wildfires fueled by high winds roared through parts of the Great Smoky Mountains, burning the doorstep of the Dollywood theme park, destroying a resort and chasing thousands of people from their homes.
National Guard troops arrived today to help overwhelmed firefighters, and Mother Nature provided a little relief as the winds calmed and rain fell in some areas. Forecasters said it would not be enough to end the relentless drought that has spread across the South and set the stage over the past few weeks for wildfires in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina.
Linda Monholland, who was working at Park View Inn in Gatlinburg, said it was about 9 p.m. Monday when she left her workplace with about five other people. Surrounded by flames the whole way, they walked for about 20 minutes to a trolley to evacuate.
“There was fire everywhere. It was like we were in hell. Hell opened up,” said Monholland, who was staying today at Rocky Top Sports World, an 80-acre sports facility that has been turned into a shelter. “Walking through hell, that’s what it was. I can’t believe it. I never want to see something like that again in my life, ever.”
Photos of the popular tourist area showed scorched cars and buildings, and soot-covered debris littered across roads in the Gatlinburg area. A smoky haze hung in the air, obscuring picturesque views of mountains in the fall, awash in trees with leaves of red, yellow and gold.
The latest wildfires grew Monday night when wind high winds blew trees onto power lines, sparking new fires and spreading embers over long distances, officials said.
“There were times last night that we had wind gusts in excess of 87 miles an hour. That is hurricane force. That is nowhere to be when trying to fight a fire,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said at a news conference today.
Hundreds of homes and other buildings, including a 16-story hotel, were damaged or destroyed.
Emergency officials ordered evacuations in downtown Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and in other areas of Sevier County near the Great Smoky Mountains. About 14,000 residents and visitors were evacuated from Gatlinburg alone.
About 1,200 people took shelter at the Gatlinburg Community Center and the Rocky Top Sports Park, and several other shelters opened. TV broadcasts showed residents streaming out of town just as rain started to wet roads.
At least a dozen people were taken to hospitals, including some with burns. No deaths were reported and officials said they had not received any reports of missing people.
Evacuees dodged fire on foot and in cars to reach shelters.
At about 9:30 p.m. Monday, Tammy Dillon had just gotten home from work when police banged on her door and told her to get out.
Dillon said she drove through a fiery scene to get to Rocky Top Sports World, where she spent the night in a car and used the shelter for the bathroom.
“We drove through flames, over hot embers in the road. It was awful,” Dillon said.
In downtown Gatlinburg, workers at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies had to flee because of the wildfires and left behind more than 10,000 fish and other animals. Police escorted a team of marine biologists and life support experts back into the aquarium today morning, and the animals were doing fine, Ripley’s said in a news release.
Based on preliminary surveys, the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa in Gatlinburg “is likely entirely gone,” the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said in a news release.
The agency had previously said it had reports that the Ober Gatlinburg amusement park and ski area had been destroyed as well, but later said resort officials had checked in and said the property was fine.
Officials with Dollywood, the amusement park named after country music icon Dolly Parton, said the theme park wasn’t damaged, but more than a dozen cabins operated by the park had been.
Dollywood suspended park operations at least through Wednesday. Its DreamMore resort will be open on a limited basis as a shelter and for registered guests.
Just hours before the fires spread, the singer appeared in a 30-second video released by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, telling people to avoid burning leaves and parking vehicles on dry grass, and warning that even a campfire can spark a wildfire.
Parton is a native of Sevier County, which includes both Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge.
In the mid-1980s, Parton partnered with the Herschend family who ran the park, then known as Silver Dollar City. It opened under the new name of Dollywood in 1986.
Parton said she’s heartbroken over the fires.
“I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe,” Parton said in a statement. “It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared.”
Rain showers ended in the Gatlinburg area about 8 a.m. today, said National Weather Service meteorologist Sam Roberts. No more meaningful rainfall was expected until about midnight today, and would last through Wednesday.
After weeks of punishing drought, any rain should be soaked up quickly, forecasters said. Rainfall amounts have been 10 to 15 inches below normal during the past three months in many parts of the South.
“I think we racked up deficits that are going to be too much to overcome with just one storm system,” said Mark Svoboda, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.