Search-and-rescue teams continued Wednesday to scour the charred hills and ridges around the mountain resort town of Gatlinburg, Tenn., after wildfires fueled by severe winds roared through eastern Tennessee.
As the death toll climbed to seven Wednesday, according to the Associated Press, hot spots continued to blaze around the quaint Appalachian tourism center that attracts 11 million people a year. Residents and visitors remained under a mandatory evacuation order after more than 250 homes, vacation cabins, motels and businesses were reduced to rubble.
While overnight storms dropped long-awaited rain early Wednesday, helping to douse the parched, fire-ravaged landscape, they also brought a risk of flooding. On Wednesday morning, the National Weather Service issued an urban and small stream flood advisory for Gatlinburg and surrounding Sevier County.
The storms also wreaked havoc on tiny, rural communities across the Southeast, killing five people and injuring dozens in Alabama and Tennessee.
Three people perished when a tornado demolished a mobile home in the small town of Rosalie, in northeastern Alabama. Five miles east, a daycare center in Ider, Ala., was destroyed, leaving four children in critical condition. A married couple was also killed in Polk County in southern Tennessee, the state Department of Health said.
“We don’t usually get tornadoes this time of year,” said Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen of Jackson County, Ala., where 50 buildings were damaged or destroyed. “But this has not been a normal weather year.”
Wildfires have been spreading for weeks in the Southeast, where severe drought persists. As many as 20 large fires are currently blazing across 142,000 acres, according to Adam Rondeau, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, who described the unusually parched conditions as creating the “perfect storm” for active wildfires.
On Monday night, high winds swept eastern Tennessee, blowing burning embers from a wildfire on Chimney Tops mountain into Gatlinburg, the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Local officials and residents in the town were taken aback by how swiftly the fires spread as winds ignited new fire spots and knocked live power lines down onto dry autumn leaves. In a span of just 15 minutes, the fire chief said, emergency workers were alerted to almost 20 burning buildings.
“You know, it happened so fast, it was staggering,” said Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his two-story home as well as the condominium business he has managed for 31 years. “When you’ve got winds of up to 87 mph pushing fire, people were basically running for their lives.”
Michael Luciano, who lives in Chalet Village, west of downtown Gatlinburg, recorded on cellphone video his harrowing journey down a narrow mountain road in a pickup truck, past flaming orange trees and cabins. (Warning, video contains profanity.)
“Hit the gas,” he screamed at his brother, Anthony Fulton, as red flames engulfed both sides of the road and embers bounced off the windshield. Their frightened dog can be heard panting in the background
Smoke filled their truck as they hurtled past blazing, burnt-out structures. “No warning, nothing…” Luciano exclaimed. “Almost every cabin in Chalet Village is burning to the freakin’ ground!”
Dozens of guests and staff found themselves trapped inside the Park Vista, a modern, high-rise hotel perched on a ridge above downtown Gatlinburg. Some fled outside with their luggage, only to find the sole road to safety blocked by fallen trees and flames.
“Then the flames came up into the parking lot,” Logan Baker, a hotel guest, told WBIR-TV.
As Baker and his aunt frantically tried to help guests get back inside, he said, embers started flying through the doors and into the hotel. Firefighters barricaded the hotel and urged guests to huddle in the center of the smoke-filled lobby as they worked to beat the fire back from the building.
Across Gatlinburg and surrounding Sevier County, hundreds of structures were damaged and destroyed – from the Sleepy Bear Motel to Cupid’s Chapel of Love, a tiny wedding venue.
State Highway 441 into Gatlinburg remained closed, and more than 14,000 residents and tourists have been evacuated. At least 45 people were taken to the hospital.
“This is a fire for the history books,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said at a news conference Tuesday.
“A lot of us have heavy hearts about what’s happened here,” Gov. Bill Haslam said at another news press conference Tuesday evening, noting that it was “a little numbing” to take in the extent of the devastation. “This is the largest fire in the last 100 years in the state of Tennessee.”
Still, much of downtown and some major tourist attractions appeared to have been spared. More than 10,000 animals at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg remained safe, even though staff had been forced to evacuate Monday. In nearby Pigeon Forge, some cabins at the Dollywood theme park — co-owned by country singer Dolly Parton, who is from the area — were damaged or destroyed, yet the park remained unscathed after firefighters dug a fire line.
With more than 10,000 people without power, emergency workers cleared debris Wednesday morning and went door to door checking on residents.
“We have not been able to get in all of the areas,” Miller said. “We pray that we don’t experience any more fatalities.”
Jarvie is a special Los Angeles Times correspondent. The Associated Press contributed to this report.