Georgia Association of Public Insurance Adjusters
(GAPIA)

Wildfires blaze in Gatlinburg, TN; thousands evacuated

 

Gatlinburg, Tennessee (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.
 
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.
 
Fires burn on both sides of Highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, on Monday, November 28. Gatlinburg city officials have declared mandatory evacuations in several areas as firefighters battle at least 14 fires in and around the city. More than 30 large wildfires have left a trail of destruction through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky, according to the US Forest Service.
 
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.
 
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.
 
 
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