14,000 evacuated from Gatlinburg; fires still burning

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — More than 150 homes and businesses lay in smoking ruins Tuesday after wildfires whipped by high-speed winds raged overnight through town and displaced more than 14,000 residents, officials estimated.

“This is one for the history books,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said at a morning news conference. “The likes of this has never been seen. 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 National Guard plans to dump water onto the flames from a helicopter.

Miller said about 14 buildings remain ablaze in the city, 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 their 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 fires swept through Gatlinburg in less than a quarter-hour Monday night, driven 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.”

As Shari Beason 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,” Beason 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.”

Despite rain and scores of firefighters battling the blaze, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency saw “little hope” of any relief soon.

More than 14,000 people had been evacuated from Gatlinburg alone, with hundreds of them seeking refuge in emergency shelters.

Beason 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,” Beason 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 TEMA said a video appears to show the facility unburned Tuesday morning.

“We are relieved to know this important Tennessee destination is still there,” TEMA officials stated in an update.

Hillbilly Golf, major hotels and countless other businesses and homes were 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.

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.

A volunteer fire coordinator said firefighters in Gatlinburg were trying to knock down fires around what he termed big structures in the downtown area, but he would not identify them.

Firefighters said the Cobbly Nob community had been heavily damaged. Evacuations were ordered but firefighters worried some residents might have been trapped.

TEMA officials reported earlier 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.”

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.

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.

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