Tennessee wildfires: 'It's the apocalypse on both sides (of downtown)'

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Hillbilly Golf, Arrowmont Arts and Crafts School, major hotels, a good portion of Regan Drive and countless other businesses and homes have been destroyed in a blaze that has firefighters continuing their efforts overnight in Gatlinburg, Tenn.

"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)."

An estimated 40 to 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, including the Park Vista Hotel, a 16-story hotel on Regan Drive and the Driftwood Apartment complex near the Park Vista that has "been completely inundated," according to Dean Flener, spokesman for Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, in Nashville.

The elementary school, Pi Beta Phi, has not been destroyed, which is a change from initial reports from fire officials.

The Space Needle and many of the properties on the main stretch are intact. Regan Drive, however, has been hard hit, according to fire crews.

Orebank Assistant Fire Chief Bradley Collins said several hotels in Gatlinburg and many houses have burned.

"It was devastating. We've seen some nice homes burning."

Ryan Holt, Greene County Volunteer Fire Coordinator, said his agency rescued three motorists who were trapped in the area in which Gatlinburg Falls, a major cabin rental company, is located. Holt said the entire area around Gatlinburg Falls was burning.

Hillbilly Golf, which is located off the Parkway as you enter Gatlinburg, also was destroyed in the fire, according to firefighters.

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

TEMA reported earlier no fatalities 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 an accident.

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 they 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, Tennessee Department of Transportation, 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.

Sara Gentry, director of sales at Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort in Gatlinburg, 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."

Bill May, executive director of Arrowmont Arts and Crafts School, 556 Parkway, Gatlinburg, sent out a Facebook post just before 11 p.m. showing a pair of dorms and the red barn surrounded by fire.

“All Arrowmont personnel are safe,” May said in his post. “I pleaded with the fire dept. to soak the walls of other buildings but our hope is the metal roofs may offer some protection. It is raining and winds have died down which offers hope, but the resources are stretched too thin with this much fire everywhere.”

May said he was on his way to his own home which was being threatened and that he and his wife Anne’s pets and an elderly neighbor were evacuated.

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 to 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 to show up.

The LeConte Event Center has been open for three years.

Allen Sheets is from the American Red Cross out of Knoxville. He 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 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 throughout the night.

He said he’s asking local families to bring supplies they can give to help the people stranded here and at the Pigeon Forge Community Center.

Katie Brittian, manager at the Dress Barn near the LeConte Center, said, "(The sky) was brown. The whole store smelled like smoke. Ash has been falling from the sky since 3."

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

Pigeon Forge city manager Earlene M. Teaster had said all of Pigeon Forge except for the "immediate Parkway" was ordered to evacuate.

Residents in the area were advised to use Highway 411-North to leave the area.

Sevier County and Gatlinburg officials established a command center at Gatlinburg City Hall.

State Hwy. 441 heading into Gatlinburg is closed, except for emergency traffic. State Hwy. 441 leaving Gatlinburg is open to evacuating traffic.

TEMA reports downed power lines and trees, and reports of road closures.

9-1-1 communications centers in the area report being inundated with calls about the situation.

Sevier and Greene County schools will be closed on Tuesday. Cocke County schools run two hours late.

Copyright 2016 WFAA


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