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Wildfire Tears Through Tennessee As Region Suffers Exceptional Drought

Smoke rises from wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg, Tenn., on Tuesday.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Smoke rises from wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains near Gatlinburg, Tenn., on Tuesday.

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET

Local officials rushed to get people out of towns as a wildfire raced into Tennessee's Sevier County on Monday evening.

At least three people were killed in the blaze, according to The Associated Press, and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday morning that at least four people were taken to hospitals with burns.

More than 14,000 people evacuated from the town of Gatlinburg alone — images posted on Twitter by the Tennessee Highway Patrol showed state troopers carrying luggage through neighborhoods surrounded by flames. The nearby town of Pigeon Forge was also threatened.

"There was fire everywhere. It was like we were in hell. Hell opened up," a resident named Linda Monholland told the AP.

On Tuesday morning, the extent of the destruction was becoming clear; overnight, the fire damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings in Gatlinburg, according to the state's emergency management agency.

Dean Flener with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency told local TV station News Channel 5 that Monday night was "devastating" for the town. "The likes of this has never been seen here," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller told the Knoxville News Sentinel. "But the worst is definitely over with."

More than 11,500 people didn't have power on Tuesday morning. Schools were closed in two affected counties.

And Dollywood, the Pigeon Forge theme park founded by country music star Dolly Parton, was also closed on Tuesday — a spokesperson for the park told USA Today the night before that nothing there had been damaged so far.

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are both popular tourist destinations at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where park officials banned all fires earlier this month amid concerns about dry conditions and widespread wildfires in other parts of the Southeastern U.S.

But the burn ban did not prevent the so-called Chimney Top Fire, which park spokesman Warren Bielenberg told the Asheville Citizen-Times was started by a human, and which ballooned from about 10 acres on Sunday to 500 acres on Monday.

"The Chimney Top Fire ... spread very rapidly [Monday] evening as high winds pushed flames onto private property," the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said in a press release.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was closed Tuesday.

A wind advisory remained in effect for the area through Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service, fanning not only the Chimney Top Fire but dozens of other blazes burning in eastern Tennessee, eastern North Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, Florida and Alabama.

As The Two-Way has reported, the entire southeastern U.S. is under extreme drought conditions — in some areas, little or no rain has fallen in the past six months, hurting farmers and creating dangerously dry conditions.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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