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Officials see ‘little hope’ that rainfall will bring relief to ravaging Tennessee wildfires

Image source: WBIR-TV

As wildfires continue to rage throughout Tennessee, state officials have estimated thousands of residents and visitors have evacuated Sevier County — which includes popular tourist destinations Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge — just last night.

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday that it is “very likely” more than 14,000 residents and visitors have been evacuated from Gatlinburg alone.

Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Warner said Tuesday morning that more than 100 structures in his city have been damaged, including, he thinks, his home. But throughout Sevier County, that number is exponentially larger.

“Even with the rain that is currently falling [over the Chimney Top Fire in the Great Smokey Mountains], the fires continue to burn and structures remain engulfed with little hope that the rainfall will bring immediate relief,” TEMA said Tuesday.

Sevier County Emergency Management Agency said Westgate Smoky Mountain Resorts & Spa, a 763-room resort in Gatlinburg, is “likely entirely gone.” Richard Siegel, an executive with the company, told the Orlando Business Journal that the resort had been evacuated Monday and that it did catch on fire.

“I hear a few buildings are standing but most of the resort burned down,” Siegel said.

Black Bear Falls also “likely lost every single cabin,” Sevier County Emergency Management Agency said.

However, Ober Gatlinburg, an amusement park and ski area, contradicted early reports that its property, too, was damaged by the fire.

“Our structure on the mountain and our animals in the Wildlife Encounter are safe,” the park said Tuesday on its Facebook page. “Please keep our rescue workers in your thoughts and prayers.”

As those in the area surveyed the damage Tuesday and worked to control the wildfires, Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller predicted that with 14 active structure fires remaining in Gatlinburg “the worst is definitely over with.”

More than 200 firefighters are “still actively fighting fire” and an additional 212 have been requested to help control the blaze, Miller said.

Popular Pigeon Forge theme park Dollywood was spared by the wildfires, part owner Dolly Parton announced Tuesday in a statement:

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.

However, more than a dozen cabins managed by Dollywood's Smoky Mountain Cabins were either destroyed or damaged, a press release said.

Ripley's Aquarium announced shortly before noon Tuesday that its animals were spared from the fire.

No fatalities have been reported yet, but four people remain hospitalized with burn injuries, TEMA said Tuesday.

Three people who reportedly suffered severe burns from the fire were transported to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville last night. A fourth person with facial burns is being treated at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville hospital, said TEMA.

Residents in Gatlinburg, parts of Pigeon Forge and along the Spur were issued an evacuation warning around 9 p.m. Monday, WATE-TV reported. Shortly after that the wildfires had overtaken several structures in Gatlinburg, including a 16-floor hotel.

On Tuesday, Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that, while the center of Gatlinburg seemed to fare well, the outskirts of the tourist town were not so lucky.

“The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now,” Balding said. “It’s the apocalypse on both sides of [downtown].”

County school buses were dispatched to Pigeon Forge to assist with emergency transportation for those who needed to evacuate.

As people evacuated, they shared harrowing photos on social media of the fires encroaching.

Facebook user Michael Luciano took video of his harrowing escape from the fire. [Content warning: Videos contain strong language.]

Strong winds and an intense drought throughout the southeast have acted as a catalyst behind the rapidly growing wildfires throughout the southeast, particularly in Tennessee.

As reported:

The 500-acre fire quickly grew Monday fueled by 30 to 40 mph winds and is affecting the Chimney Tops and Bullhead Ridge area. Authorities say the wind has caused the fire to jump to different locations along the ridges.

The Gatlinburg Fire Department reported a wind gust to 63 mph early Monday evening, according to meteorologist Jon Erdman.’s meteorologist Kait Parker also noted that rain isn’t necessarily a solution to putting out wildfires.

“It has slowed it due to the wetting of the top layer and higher relative humidity but the roots and underbrush will still be burning,” Parker said. reported that areas around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge saw 0.25 to 0.5 inches of rain from Monday night and early Tuesday morning.

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