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Wildfire devours Tenn. resort towns

| Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, 10:03 p.m.

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — A calamitous and deadly wildfire engulfed two tourist towns near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with much of the surrounding timberlands, destroying more than 150 homes and businesses, displacing thousands of residents and visitors and shutting down one of the nation's most popular natural attractions.

The fire has killed at least three people and injured at least 14, officials said Tuesday. The victims have not yet been identified.

Search and rescue efforts were underway throughout Sevier County as dusk arrived in the charred, smoke-choked mountains, but certain areas remained unreachable, authorities said late Tuesday afternoon.

The blaze forced more than 14,000 people to flee the area and left “in excess of 150” buildings in ruin, officials said.

The “unprecedented” fire — which started on the Chimney Tops mountain, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Smokies — was still burning Tuesday afternoon, emergency officials said. Strong wind and dry ground had carried the flames into the resort cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, moving too fast and too far to contain.

“This is a fire for the history books,” Gatlinburg fire Chief Greg Miller said.

Miller said that the Chimney Tops fire, which was reported Sunday, started to rage Monday night when winds rose to 87 mph, carrying away fiery embers and knocking trees and power lines to the ground.

Officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park said the extensive fire and fallen trees had forced the temporary closure of the most-visited national park in America. In the surrounding towns, the sky was smoky and the ground wet with rain. Officials said the wind had died down, but a handful of buildings continued to burn.

Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said the state was sending resources, including the National Guard, to help those who had been affected by the fires.

Residents evacuated the area as trees caught fire on the low slope of the hills and mountains on either side of the road — the flames' orange tendrils licking at the asphalt and black smoke obscuring the sky.

“Fire was coming over the mountains, and the smoke was so bad we could barely breathe as we were trying to pack up,” Mike Gill, who was evacuating with his wife, Betty, told NBC News.

At least 14 people were transported from Gatlinburg for treatment, mostly for injuries that were not life-threatening, officials said.

In Gatlinburg, flames began engulfing private structures, including the 300-room Park Vista hotel. Inside the hotel, dozens of guests were trapped Monday by a wall of flames around the building.

Logan Baker told NBC affiliate WBIR that the firefighters initially told guests that they would be safe inside the building, but a short time later, “they saw flames coming down the hill.” By the time guests had packed their cars with luggage, however, it was too late to escape, Baker told the station, noting that the only road out was covered in flames.

“When you opened the doors, it just blew you back,” he said. “Embers started flying into the hotel.”

Baker told WBIR he helped bring people back inside the hotel; once inside, firefighters told them to remain in the lobby while they fought the fire outside.

Video taken from inside the hotel lobby shows massive flames licking at the windows. Guests can be overheard discussing a plan to “dive into the pool.”

The town of Gatlinburg, with a population of about 4,000 about 43 miles south of Knoxville, is surrounded on three sides by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies, part of the Appalachian mountain range, straddle the border between eastern Tennessee and North Carolina.

Considered the gateway city to the Tennessee side of the park, Gatlinburg draws more than 11 million visitors a year, according to tourism officials. It is known for its mountain chalets and ski lodge - drawing honeymooners and other visitors all year long.

Gatlinburg's neighbor, Pigeon Forge, is home to Dollywood, country-themed music venues and attractions, and popular outlet malls.

According to the park officials, Great Smoky Mountains National Park logged more than 9.4 million visitors in 2013 - by far the most of any of the 59 national parks that year. “The second most heavily visited national park is Grand Canyon with 4.6 million visits,” according to the National Park Service.

On Tuesday, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency and other officials urged residents in Sevier County to stay clear of roadways to make way for first responders and to stay off wireless devices, unless it was to make an emergency call, to keep systems clear for vital communication. The agency also announced a temporary flight restriction in the area “to prevent aircraft from complicating the response.”

“This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Michelle Hankes, executive director of the American Red Cross of East Tennessee, said about the response effort.

Hankes, who recorded a video statement at an emergency shelter in Pigeon Forge, said that about 130 people, including children and pets, have turned up there while fleeing their homes. Hundreds of others were sheltered elsewhere.

“This fire is unpredictable,” Hankes said, crying. “We still have wind gusts - the rain has helped, but it's still a devastating, devastating loss for the people here.

“These are our community - this is East Tennessee and we're going to work together.”

Officials said the towns and surrounding area sustained widespread property damage.

“The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now,” Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding told the Knoxville News Sentinel. But he added: “It's the apocalypse on both sides.”

TEMA said Tuesday that “very preliminary surveys of damaged areas” suggested that “hundreds of structures are lost.”

“Westgate Resorts is likely entirely gone (more than 100 buildings),” TEMA said in a statement, “Black Bear Falls has likely lost every single cabin.” The agency initially said that Ober Gatlinburg Ski Area and Amusement Park “reportedly is entirely destroyed.” However, the mountain resort posted a video Tuesday morning showing the facility intact.

Officials said in a statement that Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge - the largest theme park in the area - had sustained no real damage by late Monday, but that 50 rooms in the park's DreamMore Resort and 19 of its cabins were still evacuated.

“Dollywood crews and firefighters are working to protect the park areas adjacent to a fire burning on Upper Middle Ridge,” according to the statement.

National park officials explained that the severe wind gusts of more than 80 mph, combined with “unprecedented low relative humidity, and extended drought conditions,” caused the fire “to spread rapidly and unpredictably.”

“Wind gusts carried burning embers long distances causing new spot fires to ignite across the north-central area of the park and into Gatlinburg,” Great Smoky Mountains National Park wrote on its Facebook page Tuesday morning. “In addition, high winds caused numerous trees to fall throughout the evening on Monday bringing down power lines across the area that ignited additional new fires that spread rapidly due to sustained winds of over 40 mph.”

The conditions made it difficult - if not impossible - for firefighters to contain the flames.

“The wind is not helping, and the rain is not here yet,” Miller, the Gatlinburg Fire Department chief, said in a news conference on Monday night. “These are the worst possible conditions imaginable.”

The Southeast has spent much of the past few weeks battling forest fires, which began after one of its worst droughts on record. Several states have been affected.

As The Washington Post reported Nov. 16, when there were 17 active fires in the southern Appalachians, “The entire state of South Carolina is covered in an unhealthy haze from fires burning in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

At that time, more than 80,000 acres had been burned.

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