A tragic situation has unfolded in Gatlinburg tonight, and is spreading into Pigeon Forge.
The entire city of Gatlinburg has been evacuated, and multiple structures are on fire or have already burned. Parts of Pigeon Forge have been evacuated as well, including much of Wears Valley.
Fires were burning in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park earlier today, shrouding Gatlinburg in a heavy smoke and causing most businesses to close. High winds — with gusts topping 50 mph — helped push those flames down the mountain and into residential areas just outside Gatlinburg.
The original fire began in the Chimney Tops area of the national park over the weekend. Today’s high winds helped spread embers down the mountain, igniting several different fires and creating a complete disaster.
With darkness setting in and a full-scale evacuation underway, the extent of the situation inside Gatlinburg has not been told. However, it is known that multiple homes and businesses have burned, and that more are in danger. Rain that is moving through East Tennessee is weakening — due to the common phenomenon known as downsloping — and will not be substantial enough to put out the fires. With high winds expected to continue through much of the night, the situation isn’t likely to get better anytime soon.
Images and videos coming out of Gatlinburg before the evacuation were alarming. There was video of the Park Vista hotel — the iconic, round-shaped hotel on top of a hill overlooking the downtown area — burning, as well as video of active fire on the hill directly behind the Space Needle and directly behind the Aquarium of the Smokies.
Local media reported that fire crews had pulled back to the downtown area, meaning that the fires in the hills surrounding town were pretty much unchecked. There has been video posted to YouTube that shows multiple structures burning in Wears Valley.
As a result, it seems likely that dozens of cabins, chalets and homes have burned in the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge area tonight, and heaven only knows what dawn will reveal tomorrow morning. It seems possible — if not likely — that multiple hotels and other businesses have burned in Gatlinburg tonight.
There have also been unconfirmed reports on Twitter that there is active fire inside the Dollywood theme park. Fire is also marching up the mountain towards Mount LeConte, putting the iconic LeConte Lodge at risk.
The National Guard has been deployed to Gatlinburg to assist.
The rain that will fall in Sevier County tonight will not be enough to put out the fires. However, it will hopefully be enough to dampen everything sufficiently to check the spread of the fires. Then, once the winds die down later tonight, fire crews should be able to begin getting a better handle on the fires.
Here is a video from the Dollar General on Wears Valley that shows multiple structures burning:
Update 11:24 p.m.: Residential areas of Pigeon Forge have been evacuated from Traffic Light #8 (Dollywood Lane) south to the Spur. Pigeon Forge Mayor David Wear told WATE-TV that his administration currently feels that people in motels on the Parkway are safe . . . for now.
Update 11:30 p.m.: WVLT-TV is reporting that fire crews are working inside Dollywood as a precaution, but there is no active fire inside the theme park, contrary to reports. However, DreamMore Resort and cabins near Dollywood have been evacuated.
Update 11:51 p.m.: The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency says 30 structures are burning in Gatlinburg, including a 16-story motel (that would be the Park Vista, I presume) and an apartment complex that is fully involved. WATE-TV showed pictures of several buildings fully engulfed in flames at the Arrowood School of Arts & Crafts, which is located directly behind Cooter’s Place and the Gatlinburg Visitors Bureau in downtown Gatlinburg.
Update 12:31 a.m.: Ryan Desears, GM of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies: “There are many, many structures on fire in Gatlinburg right now.” He added that there’s a fire raging behind the aquarium and that he has no idea whether the building housing the aquarium itself is okay. He’s pleading with Gatlinburg authorities to allow his crew to be among the first folks allowed back into the town, saying there are 10,518 animals at the aquarium who can’t last long without human intervention if their systems have failed due to smoke or fire.
Update 12:49 a.m.: A wedding chapel in Gatlinburg. This is Cupid’s Chapel of Love, located on Hwy. 321 near Oglewood Drive. Hwy. 321 has since been reopened to traffic.
12:54 a.m.: WBIR-TV interviewed a witness who was inside the Park Vista motel. He confirmed reports that some guests from the motel (about 40) were unable to evacuate. However, he said they are all inside the motel and are being allowed to return to their rooms. So, apparently, reports of the Park Vista being on fire were exaggerated. (TEMA reported this as well as others.) However, the same witness told WBIR that he’s looking down on the Gatlinburg downtown area, and the main street area around the aquarium is “just engulfed” by fire.
1:07 a.m.: Unbelievable video from Chalet Village in Gatlinburg. Very harrowing. This resort village, located off the Gatlinburg Bypass, was completely destroyed. There are unconfirmed reports that Ski Mountain, located in the same general area, was also destroyed. https://www.facebook.com/CreekWalker79/posts/10209278204931283?pnref=story
1:11 a.m.: Mountain Lodge Restaurant has burned. This is on Hwy. 321 well away from downtown Gatlinburg.
1:26 a.m.: This was the scene from Arrowood School of Arts & Crafts in downtown Gatlinburg, just off the main street behind the visitors bureau.