29 November 2016

Three Deaths Reported in Gatlinburg Fire, LeConte Lodge and Elkmont Undamaged by Fire

Three people have reportedly died as a result of the wildfires that swept through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Monday night and burned hundreds of structures in and around Gatlinburg, causing the evacuation of over 14,000 residents. Gov. Bill Haslam visited Gatlinburg on Tuesday to survey damage from the fires, which Park officials say have burned more than 15,000 acres. Haslam called it the "largest fire in the last hundred years in the state of Tennessee.

Destroyed structure still on fire. By Scott Frederick.
The identities of those killed have not been released. Three people suffered severe burns and were transported to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville for treatment. They are in critical condition. According to Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters, fourteen people were transported to local hospitals.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Waters worried about the possibility of more fatalities. "We have not been able to get in to all of the areas. We pray that we don't experience any more fatalities," Waters said. More than 2,000 people are staying in shelters in Gatlinburg.

Fire Chief Greg Miller said progress has been hindered by crews encountering downed trees and power poles. Many roads can't be reopened until the blockages are cleared, which makes progress slower. Firefighters are still battling hotspots throughout Gatlinburg, Miller noted.

Crews continue to fight a fire at Westgate Resort.
By Scott Frederick
The fire, which officials say originated from the Chimney Tops 2 fire and was fueled by heavy winds at times topping 87 mph, damaged about 70 structures in the Wears Valley area and 70 structures in the Cobbly Nob area near Pittman Center, along with many businesses and structures in and around Gatlinburg. The Chimney 2 fire had been burning since Nov. 23 and affected Chimney Tops and Bullhead Ridge areas. Many Park roads were closed due to the fire, which is currently of unknown origin. The sudden doubling of wind speeds Monday evening blew embers as far away as a mile, according to Park officials, sparking more fires, which in turn toppled power lines, which sparked even more fires. All of this contributed to the devastation in Sevier County Monday night.

NPS spokeswoman Dana Soehn said the Chimneys fire that sparked the other blazes was "human caused," but didn't give any further details. She said the blaze is under investigation.

Many erroneous reports were making the rounds on Tuesday about the destruction of landmarks, but officials confirmed that Ober Gatlinburg was spared, as was the Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, which houses over 10,000 marine animals. A team of marine biologists were escorted by police back into the aquarium Tuesday afternoon to tend to the animals and assess the situation. Most of Gatlinburg's main street businesses were also spared, but surrounding businesses such as the Mountain Lodge Restaurant, several cabins at the Dollywood theme park, and portions of Tree Tops Resort, Westgate Resort and Highland Condomiums received damage as well, as did portions of Chalet Village, and parts of Ski Mountain Road.

LeConte Lodge, a well-known and iconic backcountry hiking destination in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park's Mount LeConte, was spared from the wildfires, according to a press release issued by the National Park Service on Tuesday. NPS officials say the lodging facility at the base of Mount LeConte, and the Elkmont Campground and Historic Districts, sustained no damage from the fire activities in the park on Monday evening. Some Elkmont buildings sustained roof damage from falling trees caused by heavy winds, and some roof repairs will be required.

Destruction caused by the Gatlinburg Fire. By Scott Frederick.
Tomorrow, November 30, the park will turn the fire management operation to the Southern Area Type I Incident Command Team (Dueitt) to manage the ongoing fire activities within the park. This team consists of federal and state interagency team members from across the country who collaboratively manages wildland fire and other incident management activities such as natural disaster relief efforts.

More than 120 Tennessee Army National Guard solders arrived on Tuesday to help Sevier County Emergency Management personnel with transporting first responders and removing light debris, as well as checking on residents affected by the fires. A press release from Maj. Gen. Max Haston, Tennessee Adjutant General, said, "We are working closely with the local responders in Sevier and surrounding counties to assist in whatever is required to save lives and property."

All Park facilities are currently closed due to extensive fire activity and downed trees. Park headquarters has no phone service or electricity. Area trails are also closed due to the fire. A ban on campfires and open grills had already been in effect in the Great Smokies since Nov. 15.

Firefighters battling the Gatlinburg fires. NPS
A 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew is in effect in Gatlinburg. A high wind warning was issued by the National Weather Service for Tuesday night into Wednesday afternoon. They predicted lightning and sustained winds of up to 40 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph. Officials feared the forecast - Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner called it "ominous," - and officials worried about fires that continue to smolder being whipped up and spread by heavy winds. Rain is expected in the area by Wednesday morning. Residents in the area were advised to boil water as a precaution.

The City of Gatlinburg has cancelled the "Fantasy of Lights" Christmas Parade that was scheduled for Dec. 2. Most businesses in Pigeon Forge are now open and evacuations are no longer taking place there.

For more information, visit the National Park Service on their website or on social media.

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