Escaping wildfires meant fleeing through hell-like landscape

Escaping wildfires meant fleeing through hell-like landscape

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — A Tennessee mayor said three people have died in the wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses near the Great Smoky Mountains.

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said Tuesday afternoon that he didn't have any details on the deaths. The mayor said authorities are going door-to-door to make sure everyone is safe. About a dozen people have been injured.

Gatlinburg's mayor said they firefighters are still battling hotspots and there will be a curfew in effect Tuesday night. More than 14,000 residents and tourists were forced to evacuate the tourist city in the mountains.

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Mandatory evacuations were issued Monday night and Tuesday morning for the cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge because of fires in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Hundreds of firefighters, local and state personnel and National Guard troops have responded to fight the blaze and help residents evacuate.

Authorities said a total of 12 people have been hospitalized, most with non-life threatening injuries, though three people did suffer severe burns and had to be transported from a Knoxville hospital to the burn unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

Another person was being treated in Knoxville for facial burns.

Gatlinburg evacuees share their stories

Terri Dunn and her friend Karen Ford left Charlotte for a girls’ trip to the Gatlinburg area this weekend.

They realized Sunday morning during breakfast something was wrong.

“In about the 30 minutes, we sat eating our donuts, we could tell a big difference when we went outside. It was starting to get really smoky,” Dunn said.

They took pictures of downtown Gatlinburg in the morning, but the heavy smoke made it look like dusk.

“You could feel ash raining down on you,” Dunn said.

They realized they had to get out of Gatlinburg and headed back to their hotel in Pigeon Forge.

“The wind was really strong,” Dunn said.

They made it just in time because the road they had traveled on was eventually surrounded in fire.

A man with Charlotte ties, Donald Harwell, went to Gatlinburg to decorate his vacation house near Ober.

He later was surrounded by flames.

“There’s only one way in and one way out up here, and the way out, you had to drive through the fire area, and it just wasn't a good idea,” Harwell said.

Dunn, Ford and Harwell were able to make it through the night and returned home Tuesday morning.

Videos from Gatlinburg showed a bright orange sky and abandoned streets that night.

Fire crews faced high winds throughout the night as the fire quickly spread out of control.

"The wind speeds doubled last night,” said the city’s fire chief. “Wind gusts in excess of 70 mph, those winds picked up embers of fire. Those winds pushed down trees that brought down fire lines."

The chief said that more than 200 firefighters were battling the wildfire overnight and that an additional 212 firefighters were requested to help.

The chief pointed out that the winds have died down and that the worst is over, calling the fire "one for the history books."

Gatlinburg's mayor, Mike Werner, told reporters that he believes his own home has been destroyed in the fire, but said things can be rebuilt.

"We will rebuild, we will remain the premier resort community...it will be OK," Werner said.

A woman from Morganton, North Carolina, identified only as Joyce, said she and her husband were on vacation in Gatlinburg when the power went out at their rental home and she noticed some burning trees.

The couple realized they needed to evacuate before the flames reached their rental.

(Joyce, of Morganton, describes her escape to ABC6/WATE)

“So we tried to get to our car, but the smoke was so bad that we couldn't. We covered our faces with wet towels, and then we finally got in the car, and we drove down the mountain a little ways, and we ran into a tree that was blocking the road, so we had to turn around. We couldn't see to get back up the mountain. We finally got to the infinity pool and parked there, and then we watched the building go down in flames,” Joyce told ABC6/WATE.

Joyce tearfully told the ABC6/WATE reporter that she didn't know the name of the firefighter that saved them but that she was incredibly grateful.

“We left our car and our things, but we got out fine. I thank the Lord we did,” Joyce said.

Gatlinburg police had been going door to door in one neighborhood asking for voluntary evacuations. But as winds picked up and fallen trees sparked fires from downed lines, Gatlinburg fire officials declared a mandatory evacuation of a larger area.

The Dollywood resort was also evacuated Monday night because of the fires, ABC News reported.

Dollywood representatives said the theme park hasn't been damaged by wildfires, but more than a dozen cabins operated by the park have been damaged or destroyed.

A news release said Dollywood made an assessment of the park early Tuesday morning. On Monday night, resort staff evacuated families staying in 50 rooms at Dollywood's DreamMore Resort and in 19 of Dollywood's Smoky Mountain Cabins.

The release noted that Dollywood has suspended park operations at least through Wednesday, but DreamMore will be open on a limited basis as a shelter and for registered guests.

"I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken. I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe. It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared," Dolly Parton said.

Also on Tuesday, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency reported that the Ober Gatlinburg amusement park and ski area is fine. The agency previously received reports that the facility was likely destroyed.

Preliminary surveys indicate that the fires have wiped out the more than 100 buildings of the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency says National Guard troops are being sent in to help out as wildfires continue to spread in Gatlinburg and surrounding areas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

(Credit: Vicky Cowden/Facebook)

TEMA spokesman Dean Flener says the troops will transport first responders, perform welfare checks and remove debris.

Emergency officials in Tennessee ordered evacuations due to the blaze in downtown Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and in other areas of Sevier County. Officials say the wildfire has set 30 structures ablaze in Gatlinburg, including a 16-story hotel. TEMA says no deaths have been reported.

Officials say there are about 1,200 people sheltering at the Gatlinburg Community Center and the Rocky Top Sports Park.

Meanwhile, officials say about 12,000 people are without power and three school systems had canceled classes Tuesday.

The National Park Service reported that more fire growth was expected in the park and closed several roads, including U.S. Highway 441 from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, North Carolina. The highway runs through the center of the park, near Clingmans Dome.

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