3 dead, thousands evacuated as wildfires burn in Tennessee

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WKRN) – Thousands of people have been evacuated and three people have died as wildfires continue to burn in East Tennessee, including in Gatlinburg.

Search and rescue crews are going house to house.

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Click here for more pictures of the wildfires and the devastation they caused

Fire Chief Greg Miller said in a news conference Tuesday morning crews the worst is over, but crews are still actively fighting fires.

“This is a fire for the history books,” Miller said.

Officials said earlier Tuesday, it’s likely as many as 14,000 residents and visitors have been evacuated from Gatlinburg alone.

Officials say the Chimney Top Fire, which began in the Great Smoky Mountains, spread very rapidly Monday evening as winds as strong as 87 mph pushed flames onto private property. Chief Miller explained because of the high winds, trees were falling onto power lines which caught dry grass on fire.

“It’s been a difficult 24 hours,” he said.

Firefighters from throughout the state, including locally from Nashville, Murfreesboro and Lebanon, have been mobilized to Sevier County, specifically in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, to help fight the wildfire.

“The state is proving a coordinated response, including the National Guard, to help all those affected by the devastating wildfires burning in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and throughout the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) encourages residents in Sevier County to stay off mobile devices, unless it is an emergency, to prevent outage,” said a statement released by Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday.

RELATED: Dozens trapped in hotel as Tennessee town is ‘engulfed’ in flames

TEMA is asking residents in Sevier County to stay off mobile devices unless it is for emergency calls to prevent taxing the mobile system.

DAMAGES

At least 100 homes in Sevier County, Tennessee, have been impacted, including 100 different structure fires in Gatlinburg. A 16-story hotel on Regan Drive also caught on fire and the Driftwood Apartments near the Park Vista Hotel were also fully engulfed.

A preliminary damage report states that Westgate Resorts is likely entirely gone and Black Bear Falls has likely lost every single cabin.

TEMA initially said Ober Gatlinburg was also reportedly destroyed entirely. The agency later issued a statement Tuesday saying, “A video posted on Ober Gatlinburg appears to show the facility is ok this morning. We received on-the-ground reports last night and early this morning indicating the facility was destroyed. We are relieved to know this important Tennessee destination is still there.”

Ober Gatlinburg, a popular tourist attraction confirmed via Twitter Tuesday morning that the property was ok.

Iconic areas like the Gatlinburg Space Needle, Sky Lift, Pancake Pantry and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies are all reportedly unharmed.

State Highway 441 into downtown Gatlinburg is closed to everyone except emergency personnel. The highway is also open for people trying to evacuate.

Many roads remain blocked or closed due to fallen trees and power lines. Around 11,600 people are said to be without power.

Fire Chief Miller said residents will be allowed back in their homes as soon as the “emergency is under control” and crews have “done everything to protect people and structures.”

City officials said in a news conference Tuesday that Gatlinburg will rebuild and they are thankful for all the help and support they have received from all across the country.

INJURIES AND EVACUATIONS

At about 4 p.m., Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon that three people have died in the fire. Search and rescue operations are ongoing and crews are going house to house.

Three people with severe burns were transferred from University of Tennessee’s Knoxville hospital to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville overnight. A fourth victim with burns to their face continues to be evaluated at UTK. It was not immediately clear if there was any overlap between those being treated for burn injuries and the three fatalities.

Sevier County residents can indicate their status with the American Red Cross at the organization’s Safe and Well website.

Anyone can check the website to see if their loved ones have checked in.

Around 14,000 residents and visitors have been evacuated from Gatlinburg alone.

Tennessee Highway Patrol posted images on Twitter of troopers walking into areas of Gatlinburg that were surrounded by fire to remove those who were trapped by flames.

Around 2,000 people have taken shelter at the Gatlinburg Community Center and at the Rocky Top Sports Park. The shelters are expected to remain open as long as they are needed. There are also different animal shelters that are watching evacuees’ pets while families stay in the shelters.

The Tennessee Department of Correction temporarily suspended home visits of offenders in the affected area of Sevier County.

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