GATLINBURG, Tenn. — A calamitous and deadly wildfire engulfed two tourist towns near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with much of the surrounding timberlands, destroying more than 150 homes and businesses, displacing thousands of residents and visitors and shutting down one of the nation’s most popular natural attractions.
The fire has killed at least three people and injured at least 14 others, officials said Tuesday. The victims have not yet been identified.
Search and rescue efforts were underway throughout Sevier County as dusk arrived in the charred, smoke-choked mountains, but certain areas remained unreachable, authorities said late Tuesday afternoon.
The blaze forced more than 14,000 people to flee the area and left “in excess of 150″ buildings in ruin, officials said.
“People were basically running for their lives,” Gatlinburg mayor Mike Werner said at a Tuesday afternoon press conference.
The “unprecedented” fire — which started on the Chimney Tops mountain, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Smokies — was still burning Tuesday afternoon, emergency officials said. Strong winds and dry ground had carried the flames into the resort cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, moving too fast and too far to contain.
“This is a fire for the history books,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said at a news conference Tuesday.
Miller said that the Chimney Tops fire, which was reported Sunday, started to rage Monday night when winds climbed to 87 mph, carrying away fiery embers and knocking trees and power lines to the ground.
Officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park said Tuesday morning that the extensive fire and fallen trees had forced the temporary closure of the most visited national park in America. In the surrounding towns, the sky was smoky and the ground wet with rain. Officials said the wind had died down, but a handful of buildings continued to burn.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said Tuesday afternoon that the state was sending resources, including the National Guard, to help those who had been affected by the fires.
“We will do all we can to help these communities rebuild & recover,” Haslam wrote on Twitter.
Residents evacuated the area as trees caught fire on the low slope of the hills and mountains on either side of the road — the flames’ orange tendrils licking at the asphalt and black smoke obscuring the sky.
“Fire was coming over the mountains, and the smoke was so bad we could barely breathe as we were trying to pack up,” Mike Gill, who was evacuating with his wife, Betty, told NBC News.
Katie Brittain, manager at the Dress Barn in Pigeon Forge, told The Washington Post that when she arrived at work Monday, the sky was brown and ash was raining down. Despite the ominous conditions, store employees weren’t sure whether they were supposed to evacuate from their location, not far from Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood.
She said employees stayed put, but grew increasingly nervous as the smoke thickened and the wind increased that afternoon. By the end of the day, she said, the inside of the store “smelled like a bonfire.”
“The smell was really, really bad,” she said. “My eyes were burning and our throats were getting scratchy.”
“Everyone was kind of in a state of disbelief,” she added.