Thousands flee U.S. Great Smoky Mountains as wildfires roar

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 29, 2016 12:51 PM

By Laila Kearney

(Reuters) - Wildfires forced thousands of residents and tourists to flee the Great Smoky Mountains area in Tennessee on Tuesday, as the blazes burned hundreds of structures and threatened many more, including country music star Dolly Parton's theme park "Dollywood."

Four people were taken to local hospitals overnight with severe burns from one of at least two fires nearing the resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said in a statement. No fatalities were reported.

Hundreds of homes and structures and a 16-story hotel were damaged or destroyed, the agency said.

"These are the worst possible conditions imaginable," Gatlinburg Fire Department Chief Greg Miller told reporters, according to the Tennessean newspaper.

Firefighters have battled dozens of wildfires across the U.S. Southeast in recent weeks, where tens of thousands of acres of forest have been scorched.

In Gatlinburg, known as the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 14,000 people were ordered to flee overnight. Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg said in a Facebook post that all of its animals were safe.

It was not immediately clear how many people were ordered from Pigeon Forge, which includes Dollywood's 150-acre spread of rides and other attractions.

The theme park said it would suspend operations on Wednesday due to the wildfires. Meanwhile, Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials said all of the park's facilities were closed "due to the extensive fire activity and downed trees."

About 12,000 homes and businesses were without power in the area and some 1,300 people sought refuge in shelters, officials said. Downed power lines and fallen trees sparked several smaller fires, local media reported.

Members of the state's National Guard have been called in to assist first responders.

Strong winds and ongoing drought have stoked fires in the area, where rain fell early on Tuesday, the emergency management agency said.

"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," it said.

While downtown Gatlinburg was untouched by the flames, heavy smoke and an orange sky hung overhead as motorists packed roads in an attempt to leave town.

"It's the apocalypse on both sides" of the city's center, volunteer Fire Department Lieutenant Bobby Balding told NBC News affiliate 9News.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney in New York and Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Matthew Lewis)