GATLINBURG, Tenn. (UPI) — Fire officials say the worst fire in Tennessee in 100 years had people “basically running for their lives” Monday evening, but officials were hopeful that rain Tuesday night and Wednesday could help firefighters start to get an upper hand on the blaze.
More than 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge Monday evening as winds caused smaller spot fires to spread through a larger swath of the Smoky Mountains and into the cities, burning about 15,000 acres along the way while causing at least three deaths and 14 injuries.
Officials said they expected heavy rain to come through the area Tuesday night and Wednesday, but were unsure exactly the effect it would have on flames aside from smoke conditions to getting even worse. And while an evacuation order was lifted for Pigeon Forge, fire curfews were kept in place overnight in both cities.
“I’m convinced the death toll would be much higher if not for their quick decisions,” U.S. Rep. Phil Roe said of firefighters’ and other officials’ efforts to clear both cities late Monday and early Tuesday, narrowly getting people out of the way of flames which spread far faster than anyone thought they would.
The blaze started Monday as a few spot fires in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Wind picked embers up from the smaller fires and spread them further through the park and into nearby towns, burning through 500 acres and reaching homes, hotels and even Dollywood quickly overnight.
By late Tuesday night, officials estimated that 15,000 acres had burned during the previous two days at a shockingly quick rate. Hundreds of structures in the area were damaged as 400 firefighters from around the state battled the wildfire.
“It’s a little numbing, to be honest with you, to see the extent of the damage,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said, adding that so many fires were burning at once it was a “mini-miracle” the damage isn’t worse.
A strong storm system was expected to move into the area Tuesday night, dumping as much as two to five inches of rain in some areas, which could help keep the fires from spreading. Officials said, however, that the system also will bring more wind — which is how the fires spread so quickly in the first place.
Officials planned to give an update around 11 a.m. Wednesday, but said schools would remain closed and that they were not yet ready to let people start coming back en masse because of debris and other possible dangers.