Gatlinburg fires: The worst is over, officials say

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GATLINBURG, Tennessee -- [Breaking news update, posted at 11:50 a.m. ET]

More than 100 structures in the city of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, have been damaged, Mayor Mike Warner said Tuesday morning. More than 150 other structures have been damaged or destroyed in other parts of Sevier County, county Mayor Larry Waters told reporters at a news conference.

Warner, the Gatlinburg mayor, says he believes that 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, Warner said. "We will rebuild, and we will remain the premier resort community that we are. ... It will be OK."

[Breaking news update, posted at 11:40 a.m. ET]

Despite wildfire damage in other parts of town, downtown Gatlinburg "has largely remained intact," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said Tuesday.

Miller said about 14 active structure fires remain in the city, but because winds have died down, "the worst is definitely over with."

Firefighters will focus Tuesday on extinguishing the structure fires, clearing roads and checking buildings with National Guard troops, the chief added.

[Previous story, posted at 11:12 a.m. ET]

Wildfires raged in and near eastern Tennessee's mountainside resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on Tuesday, spurring thousands of evacuations and threatening homes, resorts and other businesses that are vital to the picturesque vacation hub in the southern Appalachians.

Several homes and businesses in Gatlinburg itself have been destroyed by fires propelled by strong winds that pushed from the Great Smoky Mountains into and near communities Monday afternoon, authorities said. Fires were at the edge of the Dollywood theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge on Tuesday morning.

Winds and and the Southeast's worst drought in nearly a decade have helped the fires thrive.

Here's what you need to know:

• 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.

• At least four people have been hospitalized with burns, TEMA said.

• Rain fell Monday night, but it was too late and too little to prevent damage as the region also felt wind gusts in excess of 80 mph. "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.

• Several homes and businesses in downtown Gatlinburg were "completely lost to fire," according to authorities. A report Tuesday morning from TEMA said hundreds of structures had been damaged or destroyed.

• Among the buildings destroyed in Gatlinburg are a 16-story hotel and an apartment complex, TEMA said.

• Other popular Gatlinburg attractions appeared under threat, including Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, which has 1,500 animals. Staff were forced to evacuate Monday evening, and the animals still are inside, Ripley Entertainment Regional Manager Ryan DeSear told CNN Tuesday. DeSear said that according to reports he has received, the aquarium still is standing. The facility's webcam showed lights and power still working inside, but he's concerned about the deteriorating air quality, as well as the smoke and flames. DeSear said he's hoping some staff will be allowed back into the facility Tuesday to assess the damage.

'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.

"If you're a person of prayer, we could use your prayers," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said Monday evening as crews battled hurricane-force wind gusts.

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.

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.

 

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