Three dead in Tenn. wildfires; hotels, homes destroyed

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — A historic wildfire continued to burn Tuesday in Gatlinburg, killing three people, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents, Sevier County's mayor said.

More than 150 homes have been destroyed by flames as flames whipped by high-speed winds raged through this tourist town, state emergency officials said. More than 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg alone with about 2,000 seeking refuge in emergency shelters.

About a half to three-fourths of an inch of "beneficial rain" fell in the Gatlinburg area overnight, National Weather Service meteorologist Sam Roberts said, which has significantly reduced the fires there. An additional inch of rain is expected later Tuesday and early Wednesday.

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters, whose jurisdiction includes Gatlinburg, said he had no information on the victims and that authorities are trying to notify next of kin.

"This is a fire for the history books," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said. "The likes of this has never been seen here. But the worst is definitely over with."

The Sevier County Emergency Management Agency indicated that the Westgate Resorts, made up of more than 100 buildings, had been destroyed, and Black Bear Falls was believed to have lost every cabin.

The agency also said that Ober Gatlinburg in the mountains overlooking the town had been destroyed, but the amusement park and ski resort posted on its Facebook page just after 9 a.m. ET that "our property is okay," and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said a video appears to show the facility is unburned.

"We are relieved to know this important Tennessee destination is still there," the state agency said in an update.

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency reported three burn victims were being treated at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, and fire crews have taken about a dozen patients for treatment of fire-related injuries. All three of those transported to Nashville were listed in critical condition, a spokesman for the hospital said.

However, Hillbilly Golf, major hotels, a good portion of Regan Drive and countless other businesses and homes were some of the buildings destroyed in the blaze that had firefighters working throughout the night.

"The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now," said Lt. Bobby Balding of the Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department. "It's the apocalypse on both sides (of downtown)."

Gatlinburg sits on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Most of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts survived the fire. Fire did destroy two buildings at the longtime crafts campus in downtown Gatlinburg.

Thirty structures were on fire in Gatlinburg, including the Park Vista Hotel, a 16-story hotel and the Driftwood Apartment complex near the Park Vista that has "been completely inundated," said Dean Flener, spokesman for Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, in Nashville.

Miller said about 14 buildings remained ablaze in the city, most of them smoldering shells in various stages of collapse. Firefighters headed from door to door to make sure no victims had been overlooked.

The Space Needle and many of the properties on the main stretch are intact. Regan Drive, however, has been hard hit, according to fire crews.

"It was devastating. We've seen some nice homes burning," said Assistant Fire Chief Bradley Collins of the Orebank Volunteer Fire Department in Mosheim, Tenn.

Ryan Holt, Greene County Volunteer Fire Department coordinator, said his agency rescued three motorists who were trapped in the area in which Gatlinburg Falls, a major cabin rental company, is located. Holt said the entire area around Gatlinburg Falls was burning.

Firefighters said the Cobbly Nob community had been heavily damaged. Evacuations were ordered but firefighters worried some residents might have been trapped.

Local officials had ordered mandatory evacuations Monday for Mynatt Park, Park Vista, Ski Mountain and the city of Gatlinburg. Evacuations also were ordered for the north end of Pigeon Forge.

The blaze apparently began when embers from a wildfire on nearby Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park wafted into the Twin Creek and Mynatt park areas of town around 6 p.m. ET Monday as already heavy winds doubled in speed, Miller said. The resulting flames swept through Gatlinburg in less than 15 minutes, fanned by winds at speeds that topped 80 mph.

"That's nowhere to be when you're trying to fight a fire," Miller said. "That is hurricane force. Within a span of 15 minutes, we were dispatched to more than 20 structure fires."

Cassius Cash, superintendent of the national park, said the Chimney Tops fire was originally reported Sunday as covering about 50 acres. By Monday, the fire had grown to engulf 500 acres.

"In my 25 years of federal (park) service, I've participated in many fires, but none of that could have prepared me for this," Cash said, calling Monday night's wind speeds "unprecedented."

Sara Gentry, director of sales at Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort in Gatlinburg, said several hundred people were evacuated from the hotel and she and her four children evacuated their home and headed to Dandridge to her sister's house. The number of evacuees probably would have been higher had it been the weekend, she noted.

She said she's been talking to co-workers and friends who have lost their homes to the fire.

"This one girl was driving down Ski Mountain (Road) and watching her home burn," said Gentry. "My kids' friends have lost their homes. It's just awful."

Many evacuees went to shelters in Pigeon Forge.

“We knew we had power here and some places were losing power. We knew we had restrooms and water and a safe place to house people and give them a place to go — that’s why we opened up,” said Phil Campbell, the facilities manager at the LeConte Event Center in Pigeon Forge. The facility took in 300 to 400 people Monday night.

Early Tuesday morning Sheets said cots were on the way, but blankets, food and clothes are needed. He said Wal-Mart just made a large donation, and other businesses have been helping throughout the night.

Katie Brittian, manager at the Dress Barn near the LeConte Center, said, "(The sky) was brown. The whole store smelled like smoke. Ash has been falling from the sky since 3."

Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY; Holly Fletcher, The Tennessean; and The Associated Press.


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