KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Flames tore through the Great Smoky Mountains, killing at least three people, scorching hundreds of homes and businesses and sending more than 14,000 fleeing from the resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Tourists and residents scrambled Monday night and early Tuesday to outrun the blaze, which was pushed from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the towns by wind gusts of almost 90 mph. Drivers navigating narrow mountain roads shot video footage showing flames swooping in from the shoulders of the roadway at the height of the evacuation.
Wildfires have ravaged the Southeast throughout the month, and the acrid haze of smoke has settled in across the region. But emergency responders seemed blindsided by the intensity of the wind-whipped flames Monday night.
A Gatlinburg fire official said more than 20 fire calls came within 15 minutes at the peak of the chaos.
As day broke Tuesday, the extent of the damage came into grim focus. Buildings were reduced to charred shells, and many beloved tourist destinations reported heavy damage or complete destruction. The devastation grabbed the attention of millions of people across the globe who have memories of vacations spent in the mountains of the country's most visited national park.
The center of Gatlinburg’s tourist district escaped heavy damage, but "it's the apocalypse" on either side, said Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding.
Although rooms at the Dollywood theme park and resort were evacuated as a precaution, Dolly Parton said Tuesday that the area had been spared.
At shelters, hundreds of survivors wondered how much they had lost.
Shari Deason and her boyfriend scooped up their 14-month-old son, William, when the evacuation order came, but they left everything else behind at the Bedrock Motel — even William’s diapers.
"I don't know if we've got a room to go back to," Deason said. "I don't know if we've got anything to go back to."
The unprecedented fire began when embers from a wildfire on nearby Chimney Tops Trail in the national park blew into Gatlinburg about 6 p.m. Monday as the heavy winds doubled in speed, according to Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller. Although arson suspects have been arrested in connection with separate fires this fall, it was not immediately clear what initially sparked this fire.
Cassius Cash, the park's superintendent, said the Chimney Tops fire burned about 50 acres on Sunday. By Tuesday evening, the National Park Service said the wildfire spanned more than 15,000 acres in the park and the Gatlinburg area.
"In my 25 years of federal (park) service, I've participated in many fires, but none of that could have prepared me for this," Cash said.
Emergency workers struggled to douse the flames throughout the day Tuesday, spurring help from across the state. More than 200 firefighters poured into the area from as far west as Memphis, and the Tennessee National Guard used a helicopter to dump water on the flames.
The Gatlinburg fire chief said Tuesday that “the worst is over,” but smoke was still twisting into the sky in the late afternoon.
About 12 people were treated for fire-related injuries, a Gatlinburg official said.
Three people with severe burns were taken to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville for treatment, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. A Vanderbilt official said those patients were in critical but stable condition Tuesday afternoon.
As residents filtered back in the area to take stock of the damage, they came to grips with the impact on the community — the traditionally vibrant fall colors are now a charred brown and black landscape.
“Many people come from all around the world just to enjoy the beauty of this park and enjoy the beauty of this city,” said Bryan Aleman, who works at a bank in Gatlinburg and lives in Pigeon Forge. “Everybody’s gonna suffer from it. This is what Gatlinburg is: a tourist destination for the entire nation.”
Contributing: USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee reporters Matt Lakin, Dave Boucher, Amy J. Vellucci , Jamie Satterfield , Hayes Hickman, Natalie Neysa Alund, Amy McRary, Megan Boehnke and Kristi L. Nelson.