Gatlinburg fire chief: 'The worst is definitely over'
GATLINBURG — More than 150 homes and businesses lay in smoking ruins Tuesday after wildfire flames whipped by high-speed winds raged overnight through town and displaced more than 14,000 residents, officials estimated.
"This is a fire for the history books," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said at a morning news conference. "The likes of this has never been seen here. But the worst is definitely over with."
More than 200 firefighters from across the state remain on the way to help douse the wildfires, and the Tennessee Army National Guard plans to dump water onto the flames from a helicopter, with at least three Blackhawk helicopters standing by.
About 100-125 Guardsmen are on the ground in Sevier County with more on the way, Capt. Chris Poulopoulos said.
"We've got guys still volunteering to come," he said. "Visibility was too low to fly this morning, but we should be flying soon."
Miller said about 14 buildings remained ablaze in the city Tuesday morning, most of them smoldering shells in various stages of collapse. Firefighters headed from door to door to make sure no victims had been overlooked.
Fire crews have taken about 12 patients for treatment of fire-related injuries, Miller said. The extent of those injuries wasn't available.
More than 2,000 people have been taken to emergency shelters so far.
"We have no reports of missing persons," Miller said.
The blaze apparently began when embers from a wildfire on nearby Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park wafted into the Twin Creek and Mynatt park areas of town Monday around 6 p.m. as already heavy winds doubled in speed, the fire chief said. The resulting flames swept through Gatlinburg in less than a quarter-hour, fanned by winds at speeds that topped 80 mph.
"That's nowhere to be when you're trying to fight a fire," Miller said. "That is hurricane force. Within a span of 15 minutes, we were dispatched to more than 20 structure fires."
Cassius Cash, superintendent of the national park, said the Chimney Tops fire was originally reported Sunday as covering about 50 acres. By Monday, the fire had grown to engulf 500 acres.
"In my 25 years of federal (park) service, I've participated in many fires, but none of that could have prepared me for this," Cash said, calling Monday night's wind speeds "unprecedented."
Gatlinburg fire crews had attempted to prepare for the conditions by following various predictive models, but "to be honest, all that got thrown out the window at that point," the fire chief said.
As Shari Deason watched the wildfire flames sweep toward Gatlinburg, the evacuation call came.
She, her boyfriend Daniel Hensley and her 14-month-old son, William, left everything behind in their motel room for an emergency shelter.
"We were watching it, but we didn't really know how bad it was until somebody said we had to leave," Deason said. "I didn't cry last night, and I didn't cry this morning, but the more I see of all this, I don't know what I'm going to do."
More than 14,000 people had been evacuated from Gatlinburg alone, with hundreds of them seeking refuge in emergency shelters.
Deason and Hensley, who arrived in East Tennessee a month ago from Mississippi and were staying at the Bedrock Motel, said they left their motel room without time even to grab diapers for William.
"I don't know if we've got a room to go back to," Deason said. "I don't know if we've got anything to go back to."
The Sevier County Emergency Management Agency indicated the Westgate Resorts, made up of more than 100 buildings, had been destroyed, and Black Bear Falls was believed to have lost every cabin.
The agency also said that Ober Gatlinburg had been destroyed, but the amusement park and ski resort posted to its Facebook page just after 9 a.m. that "our property is okay," and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said a video appears to show the facility unburned this morning.
"We are relieved to know this important Tennessee destination is still there," TEMA officials stated in an update.
Hillbilly Golf, major hotels, a good portion of Regan Drive and countless other businesses and homeswere destroyed in the blaze that had firefighters working throughout the night.
"The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now," said Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding. "It's the apocalypse on both sides (of downtown)."
Most of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts survived the fire. Fire destroyed two buildings at the longtime crafts campus in downtown Gatlinburg.
Phones were not working at Arrowmont on Tuesday morning, and there was limited power. But Arrowmont General Manager Bill May posted an update on his Facebook page to worried supporters. May wrote just before 7:30 a.m., “All buildings except Hughes Hall and Wild Wing survived with what appears to be little damage.”
Authorities are not allowing access to Arrowmont and to town, May wrote.
An estimated 40-50 fire units from volunteer agencies across East and Middle Tennessee were helping fight the fires, with a command center set up at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School.
Thirty structures are on fire in Gatlinburg, including the Park Vista Hotel, a 16-story hotel on Regan Drive and the Driftwood Apartment complex near the Park Vista that has "been completely inundated," according to Dean Flener, spokesman for TEMA.
The elementary school, Pi Beta Phi, has not been destroyed, which is a change from initial reports from fire officials.
The Space Needle and many of the properties on the main stretch are intact.
Orebank Assistant Fire Chief Bradley Collins said several hotels in Gatlinburg and many houses have burned.
"It was devastating. We've seen some nice homes burning."
Outside town, about 70 homes in the Wear's Valley community and another 70 in the Cobbly Nob and Pittman Center communities had been destroyed, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said. Evacuations were ordered, but firefighters worried some residents might have been trapped.
"It's going to be hard to recover from this," Waters said.
LeConte Lodge in the national park was evacuated but "as far as I know ... is still intact," said Cash, the superintendent.
Ryan Holt, Greene County Volunteer Fire Department coordinator, said his agency rescued three drivers who were trapped in the area of Gatlinburg Falls, a major cabin rental company. Holt said the entire area around Gatlinburg Falls was burning.
Hillbilly Golf, off the Parkway as tourists enter Gatlinburg, also was destroyed in the fire, according to firefighters.
TEMA officials reported no deaths that the organization knows of, but one report of a burn injury to an evacuee and minor injuries due to a fire truck involved in a wreck.
LeConte Medical Center has treated four patients related to the fires, according to Covenant Health spokeswoman Tonya Stoutt-Brown. She did not have any further details early Tuesday morning.
Blount Memorial Hospital in Maryville said late Monday night that staff were on alert but had not received any patients from the fires.
Local officials ordered mandatory evacuations for Mynatt Park, Park Vista, Ski Mountain and the city of Gatlinburg. Evacuations were also ordered for the north end of Pigeon Forge.
The National Guard is looking at deploying personnel to help clear debris, but no timeline has been set for their arrival, said Flener.
TEMA has a district coordinator on site at the command post in Gatlinburg and others on the way. The agency has activated the state emergency operations center in Nashville, with personnel on hand from the state fire marshal’s office, the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Department of Health and others, Flener said. The agency is also working with the fire mutual aid network to pull in firefighters and apparatuses from other counties, including McMinn County to the southeast.
Sara Gentry, director of sales at Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort, said several hundred people were evacuated from the hotel and she and her four children evacuated their home and headed to Dandridge to her sister's house. The number of evacuees likely would have been higher had it been the weekend, she noted.
She said she's been talking to co-workers and friends who have lost their homes to the fire.
"This one girl was driving down Ski Mountain (Road) and watching her home burn," Gentry said. "My kids' friends have lost their homes. It's just awful."
Bill May, executive director of Arrowmont Arts and Crafts School, 556 Parkway, sent out a Facebook post just before 11 p.m. showing a pair of dorms and the red barn surrounded by fire.
“All Arrowmont personnel are safe,” May said in his post. “I pleaded with the fire dept. to soak the walls of other buildings but our hope is the metal roofs may offer some protection. It is raining and winds have died down which offers hope, but the resources are stretched too thin with this much fire everywhere.”
May said he was on his way to his own home, which was being threatened, and that he and his wife Anne’s pets and an elderly neighbor were forced to leave.
Many evacuees went to shelters in Pigeon Forge.
Phil Campbell is the facilities manager at the LeConte Event Center in Pigeon Forge, which had taken in 300-400 people Monday night.
“We knew we had power here and some places were losing power. We knew we had restrooms and water and a safe place to house people and give them a place to go – that’s why we opened up,” Campbell said.
He said he expects even more people to show up.
The LeConte Event Center has been open for three years.
Allen Sheets of the Knoxville chapter of the American Red Cross said the number of people at the shelter is expected to increase, as trolleys and buses continue to pull up with residents.
Late Monday night Sheets said a group of approximately 200 people was gathered at the Pigeon Forge Community Center.
Early Tuesday morning Sheets said cots are on the way, but blankets, food and clothes are needed. He said Wal-Mart just made a large donation, and other businesses have been helping throughout the night.
He said he’s asking local families to bring supplies they can give to help the people stranded here and at the Pigeon Forge Community Center.
Katie Brittian, manager at the Dress Barn near the LeConte Center, said, "(The sky) was brown. The whole store smelled like smoke. Ash has been falling from the sky since 3."
Judy Tucker, director of Sevier County's E-911 call center, around 9 p.m. said, "We were just told by the Gatlinburg Fire Department that they had told everybody in Gatlinburg to get out. No one's getting through to anyone. Phones are ringing and not being answered anywhere. It's chaos."
Pigeon Forge city manager Earlene M. Teaster had said all of Pigeon Forge except for the "immediate Parkway" was ordered to evacuate.
Residents in the area were advised to use Highway 411-North to leave the area.
Sevier County and Gatlinburg officials established a command center at Gatlinburg City Hall.
State Highway 441 heading into Gatlinburg is closed, except for emergency traffic. State Hwy. 441 leaving Gatlinburg is open to evacuating traffic.
TEMA reports downed power lines and trees, and reports of road closures.
Sevier and Greene County schools were closed on Tuesday. Cocke County schools ran two hours late.
Tremont Institute on the Townsend side of the national park evacuated its campus with no reports of injuries.
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