Tennessee wildfires threaten resort towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Motorists fleeing wildfires in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge packed roads in and out of the resort towns Monday night as flames and choking smoke driven by wind swept across the area.

The Gatlinburg Fire Department ordered the mandatory evacuation of downtown Gatlinburg as wind conditions worsened and several fires grew increasingly unpredictable and dangerous.

As fires threaten homes and businesses in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the area’s largest theme park was watching the situation closely.

Pete Owens, spokesperson for Dollywood, said late Monday that no structures inside the park had been damaged. Fire crews in the park were standing by if needed to protect the buildings.

Owens said the fire has reached the Upper Middle Creek ridge near the park, and staff evacuated 19 occupied cabins in the park’s cabin resort area. In addition, they evacuated guests from 50 rooms in Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort.

Some areas of Pigeon Forge also were being evacuated, according to fire spokeswoman Trish McGee.

“Three county school buses are available for emergency transport and are being dispatched as needed to transport those who need to evacuate,” according to a statement from McGee.

“We were just told by the Gatlinburg Fire Department that they had told everybody in Gatlinburg to get out,” said Judy Tucker, director of Sevier County’s E-911 call center, around 9 p.m. “… No one’s getting through to anyone. Phones are ringing and not being answered anywhere. It’s chaos.”

Around 6 p.m., Gatlinburg fire officials declared an immediate mandatory evacuation of the Mynatt Park neighborhood, East Foothills Road, Turkey Nest Road, Davenport Road and Savage Gardens areas. At that point, average wind speeds were recorded at 40 mph, with gusts clocking in as high as 74 mph, according to a news release from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

With the majority of the wildfires listed as 100% contained on the Division of Forestry’s website on Sunday, firefighters were hoping the 2-plus inches of rainfall forecast for Monday and Tuesday nights would bring an end to the ongoing wildfire emergency. But Monday’s high wind speeds exacerbated the situation, and the rain has yet to fall — Gatlinburg was expected to receive at least half an inch around midnight, said Jeremy Buckles, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Morristown.

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

Fallen trees sparked multiple fires in Gatlinburg from downed power lines, authorities said. Fire departments from multiple agencies are responding to the area fires.

Sevier County Schools canceled classes on Tuesday due to the fires, according to the school system’s website.

Employees from the Elkmont and Park Headquarters area were evacuated. Officials closed the Gatlinburg Bypass and Little River Road from Sugarlands Visitor Center to Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area.

Longtime former LeConte Lodge caretaker Allyson Hughes Virden and her husband Chris posted on Facebook before the evacuation became mandatory.

“The mountain headed up to LeConte is a blaze,” Allyson Virden said. “We drove to the top of our hill and we were blown away with the fire that is spreading up Mt. LeConte. My heart is breaking … Chris and I are about to pack up and head out. It breaks my heart to think of all the people in harm’s way and the historic buildings that are in danger. Please pray for our community and beloved Smokies.”

Voluntary evacuations of Mynatt Park neighborhood began on Monday afternoon after a fire was reported around 11:30 a.m., roughly 150 yards behind the Twin Creeks Picnic Pavilion on Cherokee Orchard Road, according to a park news release. The city set up a makeshift shelter at the Gatlinburg Community Center, 156 Proffitt Road.

Officials initially reported additional fire activity near the Park Headquarters area, as well as a spot fire between Elkmont and Newfound Gap Road off of the Sugarland Mountain Trail approximately 1 mile south of the Husky Gap Trail intersection.

The National Park Service issued an Air Quality Advisory for the area due to the smoke.

The blaze forced the evacuation of Pi Beta Phi Elementary School around 12:30 p.m. The evacuation was a precautionary measure due to the smoke, according to Karen King, assistant superintendent with the Sevier County School District.

The Twins Creek fire was the second in a week in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the first being a fire near the Chimney Tops area, which has grown to cover more than 500 acres since it was reported last week.

In a news release on Monday, park officials said they closed Newfound Gap Road, Cherokee Orchard Road, Elkmont Road and several trails in response to the Chimney Tops fire.

“The fire is currently moving northeast, burning primarily along the ground layer through duff and leaf litter. Gusting winds have caused the fire to spot across the ridges in the Chimney Tops and Bullhead Ridge areas,” the release stated.

Contributing: WBIR-TV, Knoxville, Tenn. Follow Steve Ahillen and Travis Dorman on Twitter: @sahillen and @travdorman

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