Wild­fires kill 3, force 14,000 to flee in South

Baltimore Sun - - NATION - By Steve Megargee

GATLIN­BURG, Tenn. — With flames drip­ping from tree branches like lava and the air filled with em­bers, thousands of peo­ple raced through an in­ferno-like land­scape as they fled from wild­fires that killed three peo­ple and de­stroyed hun­dreds of homes and a re­sort in the Great Smoky Moun­tains.

Fanned by hur­ri­cane­force winds, the flames reached the doorstep of Dol­ly­wood, the theme park named af­ter coun­try mu­sic leg­end and lo­cal hero Dolly Par­ton. But the at­trac­tion was spared any sig­nif­i­cant dam­age.

The fires spread quickly Mon­day night, when winds top­ping 87 mph whipped up the flames, catch­ing res­i­dents and tourists in the Gatlin­burg area by sur­prise. Po­lice banged on front doors and told peo­ple to get out im­me­di­ately. Some trekked 20 min­utes to catch life­sav­ing rides on trol­leys usu­ally re­served for tours and wed­ding par­ties.

“There was fire ev­ery­where. It was like we were in hell. Hell opened up,” said Linda Mon­hol­land, who was work­ing at Park View Inn in Gatlin­burg when she Wild­fires around Gatlin­burg de­stroyed two dor­mi­to­ries at Ar­row­mont School. and five other peo­ple fled on foot. “Walk­ing through hell, that’s what it was. I can’t be­lieve it. I never want to see some­thing like that again in my life, ever.”

In all, more than 14,000 res­i­dents and tourists were forced to evac­u­ate the tourist city in the moun­tains, where some hot spots per­sisted and a cur­few was planned for Tues­day night.

No de­tails on the deaths were im­me­di­ately avail­able. More than a dozen peo­ple were in­jured.

The winds calmed and rain fell on some of the fires early Tues­day, but of­fi­cials were wor­ried that fire could spread again by evening, with fore­casts call­ing for winds up to 60 mph.

Gatlin­burg Fire Chief Greg Miller said of­fi­cials were still con­duct­ing search- and- res­cue mis­sions.

“We­have not been able to get in all of the ar­eas,” Miller said. “We pray that we don’t ex­pe­ri­ence any more fa­tal­i­ties, but there are still ar­eas that we are try­ing to get to” be­cause of downed trees and power lines.

Pho­tos of the Gatlin­burg area showed scorched cars and build­ings and soot­cov­ered de­bris scat­tered across roads. A smoky haze hung in the air, ob­scur­ing pic­turesque fall views of the moun­tains awash in red, yel­low and gold leaves.

Though wild­fires have been burn­ing for sev­eral weeks across the drought­stricken South, Mon­day marked the first time any homes and busi­nesses were de­stroyed on a large scale.

The wild­fires spread when winds blew trees onto power lines, spark­ing new fires and shoot­ing em­bers over long dis­tances. Hun­dreds of homes and other build­ings, in­clud­ing a 16story ho­tel, were dam­aged or de­stroyed.

Of­fi­cials or­dered evac­u­a­tions in down­town Gatlin­burg and Pi­geon Forge and in other ar­eas of Se­vier County near the Great Smoky Moun­tains.

MICHAEL PA­TRICK/KNOXVILLE NEWS SEN­TINEL

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