Wildfires blaze in Gatlinburg, TN; thousands evacuated

Updated 8:33 AM EST, Tue November 29, 2016
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Story highlights

NEW: 1,500 animals still inside Ripley's Aquarium, staff forced to evacuate

No deaths reported, evacuations have been ordered in several communities

(CNN) —  

Fanned by strong winds and the Southeast’s worst drought in nearly a decade, at least 14 wildfires burned in and around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, forcing evacuations from the popular tourist destination and nearby communities.

“If you’re a person of prayer, we could use your prayers,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said Monday evening as crews battled wind gusts of up to 70 mph.

Thick smoke looms in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on Monday November 28.
Thick smoke looms in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on Monday November 28.
PHOTO: Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP

Tuesday’s fire news

On Monday afternoon, a wildfire from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spread rapidly 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,” said Cassius Cash, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to CNN affiliate WATE.

There were no deaths reported in connection with the fires, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. But a male evacuee reportedly suffered burn wounds and an accident involving a fire truck may have also caused minor injuries, the agency said.

Several homes and businesses in downtown Gatlinburg were “completely lost to fire,” according to authorities. By Tuesday morning, the scope of the disaster was difficult to quantify, with officials unable to give estimates for the number of fires, their size, injuries and how many structures had burned. But a report hours earlier from TEMA reported at least 30 structures had been impacted, including a 16-story hotel and an apartment complex that was consumed by flames.

Staff at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg were forced to evacuate Monday evening, but all of the facility’s 1,500 animals are still inside, Ripley Entertainment Regional Manager Ryan DeSear told CNN Tuesday.

DeSear said that according to reports he has received, the building is still 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 morning to assess the damage.

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.”

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 will be closed Tuesday, the agency said, and more than 12,000 people in Sevier County were without power as of early Tuesday morning.

Several evacuation shelters opened as 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.

At Dollywood, the theme park owned by Dolly Parton in Pigeon Forge, 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, said Pete Owens, director of media relations at Dollywood.

’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.

Good news and bad news

There may be some good news: Rain moved into the area late Monday night, heading east.

But with the rainfall came some bad news.

“Unfortunately, some wind gusts will accompany this rain,” noted the National Weather Service.

High winds are possible across eastern Tennessee, southwest Virginia and southwest North Carolina, according to the National Weather Service. They could topple trees and power lines and fan the flames.

CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian reported from Gatlinburg, with Madison Park writing and reporting from San Francisco. CNN’s Keith Allen, Christine Sever, Judson Jones, Dave Alsup, Jeremy Grisham, Phil Gast and Jennifer Gray contributed to this report.