Like everyone here on the ground, the federal government seems to be reeling a bit from the Gatlinburg fire that raged out of control last night. We just received this immediately-out-of-date press release from the Federal Emergency Management Agency announcing it has authorized federal reimbursement for fighting the Chimney Tops fire in Sevier County. It notes that “More than 30 residences are threatened, however, that number could grow substantially if the fires reach the City of Gatlinburg.”
Clearly, someone needs to fill FEMA in. Early estimates are that at least 75 homes, as well as hotels, businesses and major tourist attractions, burned last night, and at least 30 structures were still aflame this morning. At least 75 percent of the firefighting costs will be reimbursed by FEMA, which, all cynicism aside, is fortunate because that’s likely to be a very, very steep bill. Gatlinburg is already going to be facing astronomical costs for repairing its infrastructure, and its main industry, tourism, will likely be devastated. That’s before you deal with the costs of evacuating an estimated 14,000 people. (As some people have already noted, it’s a very good thing this didn’t happen on a weekend a little farther into the holiday season, when Dollywood and the City of Gatlinburg attract many tourists with Christmas performances, parades and other celebrations.)
And the source of the city’s woes is still burning. Great Smoky Mountains National Park acknowledged this morning on its Facebook page that the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge fires resulted from the spread of the Chimney Tops Fire, the second in the same area of the park within the last 10 days. The mountain fire near popular trails was small on Sunday but spread rapidly as winds gusted over 80 miles per hour in advance of the weather front that brought rain Monday night. Unfortunately the rain turned out to be too little to help much, although more is predicted for tonight.
Here’s the park service’s explanation: “Unpredicted, extreme weather conditions on Sunday afternoon through Monday led to the exponential spread of fires both inside and outside of the National Park. Severe wind gusts of over 80 mph, unprecedented low relative humidity, and extended drought conditions caused the fire burning in the National Park to spread rapidly and unpredictably, in spite of suppression efforts on Sunday that included helicopter water drops. Wind gusts carried burning embers long distances causing new spot fires to ignite across the north-central area of the park and into Gatlinburg.” The winds also toppled trees, which in turn brought down power lines that ignited new fires. The park is closed, and a statement from the park indicates conditions there “remain extremely dangerous.”
Earlier yesterday, before the fire raged into Gatlinburg, the park service also indicated that Utah firefighters had joined the effort and four additional hand crews with a total of 80 people, as well as air support, were scheduled to start arriving yesterday and continue today.
Information emerging from emergency responders has been spotty. The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency announced this morning that Ober Gatlinburg had been destroyed, but the attraction posted an announcement and pictures to its Facebook page contradicting that, and TEMA has retracted its earlier statement. Bill May, director of the historic Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts, reported on social media that two dormitories burned but the rest is mostly intact.
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies announced ten minutes ago on its Facebook page that it has been able to get its biologists back inside the building along with “life support experts,” and the animals are safe.
State and local emergency management officials seem to agree the huge Westgate Resorts as well as Black Bear Falls cabins have been completely destroyed. Mysterious Mansion announced on its Facebook page that it has burned down after 36 years. Media are reporting that 75 to 100 homes in the Cobbly Nob area were destroyed, and it was unclear whether some people might be trapped there; cell service has been overwhelmed and unreliable.
According to TEMA, which is in a Level 3 state of emergency status, three people with severe burns were transferred from the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville hospital to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville overnight. A fourth with burns to their face continues to be evaluated at UTK. No deaths have been reported. Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers have conducted door-to-door checks and helped with evacuations; the Tennessee National Guard has activated 100 soldiers to help with debris removal and wellness checks, TEMA indicated in a morning update.
S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at email@example.com
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