GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Three people died in raging wildfires that scorched roughly 15,000 acres in a resort-heavy area of eastern Tennessee, showered residents with embers and forced tourists to evacuate from their accommodations.
The wildfires spread with little warning Monday from the Great Smoky Mountains into inhabited areas of Sevier County, including the town of Gatlinburg and an area around Pigeon Forge. While some major tourist attractions were spared, more than 250 buildings in the county were damaged or destroyed in a dizzying 24-hour period, officials said.
Some fires continued to burn Wednesday morning, and authorities continued to block off Gatlinburg, from which about 14,000 residents and tourists had been evacuated Monday.
Evacuees said they were forced to leave with only the clothes on their backs as fire surrounded their homes.
“There was flames everywhere,” 52-year-old Gatlinburg resident Mark Benzschawel told CNN’s Nick Valencia. “It was a firestorm.”
Benzschawel said police banged on his door Monday night to wake him and his partner, Denise Bearden. The couple alerted their neighbor, who managed to escape with her dog.
Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said three people in Sevier County died in separate incidents as a result of the fires. Fourteen other people were injured, including four being treated for burns at hospitals, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said.
“We pray we don’t experience any more fatalities, but there are still areas that we’re trying to get to because of down trees and down power lines,” Miller said.
The fires that reached Gatlinburg began days earlier on a trail in the mountains 10 miles south of the city, National Park Service spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. But strong winds that began Sunday helped the fire spread into the Gatlinburg area on Monday.
Investigators believe the trail fire was “human caused,” Soehn said, without offering further information, but it’s still under investigation.
Wildfires have burned in parts of the Southeast for weeks, fueled by the region’s worst drought in nearly a decade.
‘Like a perfect storm’
Gusts of up to nearly 90 mph scattered embers across the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into nearby communities on Monday. Fires fed off drought-stricken trees. Winds knocked down power lines — contributing to thousands losing electricity. In turn, that led to new fires.
“Everything was like a perfect storm,” Cassius Cash, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, told CNN affiliate WATE.
The fire destroyed a number of structures at Gatlinburg’s Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa.
One major attraction, the Ober Gatlinburg ski area and amusement park that overlooks the city, appeared to be spared. But on a road leading to the resort, what used to be homes have been reduced to burned-out husks.
Only the bricks remained intact — and only in places. The insides have been eaten away by the fire.
Cars parked outside suffered the same fate — their paint burned to ash, their tires melted away. Uprooted trees leaned on power lines.
Smoke, which turned the sky a bleak gray, continued to drift Tuesday from burned-out vehicles and the charred remains of buildings.
“It is absolutely devastating,” said Mark Nagi of the Tennessee Department of Transportation, who posted footage of the destruction on his Twitter feed.
‘Down in flames’
On Tuesday, firefighters continued to put out flames and clear fallen trees and telephone poles from roadways, Chief Miller said. But authorities have issued evacuation orders for Gatlinburg and nearby areas including parts of Pigeon Forge.
Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood, the theme park owned by singer and actress Dolly Parton. At Dollywood, officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park evacuated guests from its resort and cabins as flames approached the area. The park was not damaged.
In a statement, Parton said she was heartbroken about the fire damage and had been “praying for all the families affected.”
“It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared,” she added.
Several emergency shelters opened to accommodate evacuees. At one time, about 1,300 people were staying in six shelters in the area. Nearby, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park evacuated employees from the Elkmont and park headquarters housing areas on Monday.
Some residents needed oxygen after inhaling smoke. Officials in Cocke and Sevier counties canceled classes for Wednesday.
Authorities said they remain uncertain certain when residents would be able to return to evacuated neighborhoods.
‘It’s just engulfed’
Some people — including guests at the Park Vista Hotel in Gatlinburg — could not comply with the evacuation orders as the fire advanced Monday night because falling trees engulfed in flames blocked the only road out.
Logan Baker, a guest at the hotel, was among dozens of guests who were stuck. The flames edged up to the hotel parking lot, he told CNN affiliate WATE.
“I just see fire everywhere,” Baker said.
Smoke permeated the building, making it hard to breathe, he said. Guests stood in the hotel lobby Monday night with masks over their faces.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who flew over the scorched forest, said the region’s damage was “a little numbing” given how “special” it was for the entire state.
“Millions have families who have come here and will continue to come here,” Haslam said.
Bracing for the threat of more fires
Despite some progress battling the Tennessee fire, officials braced for the possibility of spot fires into Wednesday.
“The single greatest concern would be the wind,” Miller said. “The greater the wind speed is, it just makes our job a little harder. It creates these additional spot fires.”
According to CNN meteorologist Michael Guy, the nearby Great Smoky Mountains were under a high wind warning, with possible gusts of up to 60 mph.
The area could be helped by up to 2 inches of rainfall expected into Wednesday morning. The stormy weather’s threat could be twofold: Lightning strikes could spark more fires or the downpour could prompt flash flooding.
Gatinlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said he believes his house is among those lost.
“But things can be rebuilt. Our downtown’s intact, and that’s really great for our economy” and the city’s future, the mayor said. “We will rebuild, and we will remain the premier resort community that we are. … It will be OK.