Updated: 3 Confirmed Deaths In 'Chimney Tops Fire' In Gatlinburg | Nashville Public Radio

Updated: 3 Confirmed Deaths In 'Chimney Tops Fire' In Gatlinburg

Nov 29, 2016

Update: 4:50 p.m.

Authorities in Gatlinburg have now confirmed three fatalities related to the fast-moving wildfires that roared through the mountain town last night. No other information has been released about the deaths except that they were outside of the town of Gatlinburg.

About a dozen people have been injured, three of whom were airlifted to Vanderbilt Medical Center overnight.

Hundreds of people in shelters are still waiting for permission to go back to their homes, including Ryan Blaise, a waiter.

"I have no clue," he says. "I've heard anything from 'not too long' to 'a few days.' "

Emergency officials say they don't want to let people return too early. Many power lines are still down and fires are still smoldering, some of them near propane tanks. They say it's a "life safety" issue at this point.

They are also asking those who want to help the victims of last night’s fires near the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to stay away from the affected areas.

In a statement, Gov. Bill Haslam said the state, along with the National Guard, is providing a coordinated response. The mayor of Sevier County said authorities are going door-to-door to make sure everyone is safe.

Local residents wishing to help in the aftermath of the fires are being directed to donate to disaster relief funds like those of the Red Cross or one being set up by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

Update: 11:00 a.m.

"This is a fire for the history books because it is unlike anything most have ever seen," Gatlinburg fire chief Greg Miller said at a press conference Tuesday morning.

Miller was asked to explain how the Chimney Top Fire got out of control. He described a cascade that resulted in a blaze burning more than a hundred structures.
 

The fire had been going in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Then the humidity dropped ahead of a storm front. Wind speed picked up and the direction shifted, catching firefighters off guard.

Then around 6 p.m., the wind speeds doubled, Miller said.

"There were times last night where we had wind gusts in excess of 87 miles an hour. That is hurricane force. That is nowhere to be when trying to fight a fire," Miller said.

Embers blew as far as a mile away, sparking new fires.

"At the same time we were facing that challenge, those high winds were knocking down trees. Those trees were hitting power lines and they were falling on this very dry, extreme drought-like condition, and everything was catching on fire."

The National Park Service says they — too — were blindsided by the winds but that they were still dropping water on the Chimney Top Fire as late as Sunday.

Update: 8:45 a.m.

Three people with severe burns from the wildfires that tore through Gatlinburg overnight have been transferred to the burn unit at Vanderbilt, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Currently, there are no reports of fatalities.

The damage includes several mountain getaways including Westgate Resorts, which has 100 separate buildings. TEMA reports every cabin at Black Bear Falls went up in flames.

However, some early reports have already proved incorrect. Ober Gatlinburg posted a video this morning showing the ski resort was still standing, despite reports to the contrary by state officials.

A temporary flight restriction has been put in place to prevent aircraft from complicating the response. The Red Cross is asking volunteers to stay home for now. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam has also asked residents of Sevier County to limit their cell phone use to keep from jamming up communication lines for first-responders.

Update: 8:30 a.m.

Knoxville's WBIR news spoke with Ryan Desear this morning, CEO of Ripley's Aquarium where over 10,000 animals are housed on Gatlinburg's downtown strip. 

Since the city is under mandatory evacuation, little is known about the extent of fire damage.

But Desear said the aquarium's web cam is still active and the building appears to be unharmed. He also said the facility hasn't lost power and that as long as the generator has fuel, the building's automation system is designed to "keep the animals healthy." 

This story was updated at 7 a.m.

About 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge overnight. Lines of fire trucks from around the state poured into Sevier County. Early reports from crews on the ground say that hundreds of structures may be lost.

Incredible video from Gatlinburg this morning shows an orange glow over the resort town as cabins and chalets are up in flames. 

The fires continue to rage, says Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Dean Flener.

“It’s still a wildfire fighting effort," he says. "The rain that we got last night was just not enough to put anything out, and so there are fires still burning. And with the windy conditions expected today, it gives the fires likely a chance to spread.”

The Chimney Top mountain fire grew quickly late Monday, as winds ahead of a line of storms whipped up the flames. As of Tuesday morning, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency tallied 100 homes burned in Sevier County. At least 30 structures are burned in Gatlinburg, including a 16-story hotel and an apartment complex.

Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge remain under evacuation orders. 

As residents and tourists fled, crews from around the state arrived. Roughly 150 firefighters from outside of Sevier County are now helping contain the blaze, and 100 members of the Tennessee National Guard were called. Emergency responders are asking everyone else to stay away.

“The good news is that there are not reports of fatalities," Flener says. "We’ve had four reports of injuries. But we’ve had hundreds of structures, according to the local emergency management agency there, that are likely destroyed and at the very least damaged.”

Flener says the Ober Gatlinburg resort was heavily damaged. Arrowmont Arts and Crafts School burned, as well a 16-story hotel.

Fire Footage

Michael Luciano posted a harrowing video as he left overnight. Wildfires engulfed homes and businesses as he drove down roads flanked by flames and sometimes blocked by downed trees. 

"We are now evacuating as Chalet Village is on fire," he said. (Warning: strong language)

Vicky Cowden, who is from Pigeon Forge, posted video of flames lapping at trees along "the spur" outside of Gatlinburg.

"This is so close to the resort, so close," she said while driving by flames. "Oh my god, it's so hot."

Schools in several counties are closed. More than a thousand people are staying in shelters. According to reporters who traveled there overnight, no one is being let near the mountain towns.