Wildfire rages outside Great Smokey Mountains park

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 11:16 AM


PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — A wildfire burning in a resort area outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee has damaged or destroyed nearly 60 large rental cabins and is threatening additional homes.

The 160-acre fire was reported around 5 p.m. EDT Sunday in Sevier County, said Ben Bryson, a fire resources coordinator with the Tennessee Division of Forestry. National Guard helicopters were pouring water on the fire.

Although the fire was initially contained Monday morning, officials with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency reported in the afternoon that the fire breached the containment and was threatening an additional 15 to 20 homes.

Some of the cabins were occupied and about 150 to 200 people were evacuated, but Byson said no injuries were reported.

TEMA said in an update posted online that more evacuations were begun after the fire breached the containment and that they were concerned that high winds could cause the fire to jump a ridgeline and threaten Pigeon Forge.

The agency said expected wind speeds of about 24 mph or higher Monday afternoon could ground the helicopters.

However, a storm front moving across the Tennessee was expected to bring an inch of rain to East Tennessee by Tuesday morning.

John Helt was cleaning a cabin Sunday afternoon in Black Bear Ridge Resort when someone alerted him to the spreading fire, he told The Knoxville News Sentinel (http://bit.ly/143VlR9 )

“I went running down there, and I noticed the fire started on the porch where there was a hot tub. I found out (the cabin) was empty.”Officials have not said what caused the fire.

Helt said he ran through the area knocking on cabin doors to alert people to the fire, even running past cabins in flames.

“I don’t ever want to see nothing like that ever again,” Helt said. “The flames were so hot I nearly passed out from the heat.”

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency declared a state emergency Monday morning to make resources available, said Dean Flener, a TEMA spokesman. The declaration did not mean the situation was escalating, Flener said.

Andy and Cassie Endris told newspaper they traveled to the resort from Indiana with another couple to celebrate a birthday. After hiking and then watching a show and having dinner in Pigeon Forge, they headed back to their cabin and found the roads closed and saw an orange glow from the mountaintop.

“It’s just stuff. Everything is replaceable,” Cassie Endris said of their clothes and a laptop left in the cabin.“We’re all safe. I’m just shook up,” she said.

Paul and Megan Reagan live in the area. They went to church Sunday night and firefighters later escorted them to their home to get medicine, diapers and formula for their daughter.

“We’ve got what we need,” Megan Reagan said, fighting back tears.

The couple planned to spend the night with Megan’s mother.

“We’ve got our family, and we’ve got God, but it’s still just scary,” she said.

National Weather Service forecasters predicted a 90 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms Monday and Monday night in the mountain region.

Capt. Benny Pickens of the Sevierville Fire Department said the wind often associated with thunderstorms could be a problem for firefighting efforts.

“That’s going to be harmful, but if mother nature drops some rain on it, that will be very much appreciated,” Pickens said.

A survey team was checking Monday to determine specifically how many cabins burned. Pickens said many of the structures were rental cabins.

At the height of the fire, about 100 firefighters from about 30 fire departments were battling the blaze.

The area is home to country star Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park, which Bryson said was not being threatened by the fire. Dollywood was the site of a separate brush fire Saturday night but park officials said that fire would not affect the season opening this weekend.

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