US wildfires: Three people dead, thousands of evacuation reported

The fires have been fanned by high winds and fuelled by parched vegetation after the worst drought in nearly a decade.

By: AFP | Washington | Published:November 30, 2016 7:41 am
A hillside erupts in flame as a wildfire burns in Placerita Canyon in Santa Clarita, Calif., Monday, July 25, 2016. A raging wildfire that forced thousands from their homes on the edge of Los Angeles continued to burn out of control Monday as frustrated fire officials said residents reluctant to heed evacuation orders made conditions more dangerous and destructive for their neighbors. (AP Photo/Nick Ut) Hundreds of firefighters have descended on Gatlinburg and TEMA estimated that more than 14,000 residents and visitors had been evacuated from the city alone. (AP Photo)

Three people have reportedly died in the US southeast as wildfires bore down on a mountainous tourist region home to a theme park founded by country music legend Dolly Parton. The fires, located in the eastern part of Tennessee, have damaged or destroyed hundreds of structures and caused thousands of evacuations yesterday, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) reported.

Not only are the fires threatening Parton’s Dollywood, but they have also blazed through parts of the tourist hamlet of Gatlinburg, one of the gateways to the area’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Officials in Sevier County, in which Gatlinburg and Dollywood are located, told reporters Tuesday that three people had died, according to multiple US media.

The fires have been fanned by high winds and fuelled by parched vegetation after the worst drought in nearly a decade. Wind speeds topping 70 miles (110 kilometers) per hour were reported in some parts of the state.

Hundreds of firefighters have descended on Gatlinburg and TEMA estimated that more than 14,000 residents and visitors had been evacuated from the city alone.

Three people with severe burns and a fourth with burns to the face had been transferred to hospitals, it said, although it was unclear if any of these were among the fatalities.

More than 100 structures were damaged in the city, while more than 150 were damaged or destroyed in Sevier County, according to officials cited by CNN.

The Great Smoky Mountains, the most visited national park in the United States, yesterday said it had “closed all facilities in the park due the extensive fire activity and downed trees,” and that park headquarters were without power and phone services.

Dollywood, located in the town of Pigeon Forge near the national park, suspended operations for today.

A morning assessment revealed no damage to the park itself, although more than a dozen cabins managed by Dollywood were found to be damaged or destroyed, the resort said in a statement.

“I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken. I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe,” Parton, 70, said yesterday.

“It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, (Dollywood’s) DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared.” Parton’s 295-acre (120-hectare) amusement resort is one of the region’s most popular draws with rides and musical events that sometimes include appearances by Parton and her family.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence said that “our hearts and our prayers go out to the people of Tennessee who are struggling with an extraordinary wildfire.”

He said Trump spoke with Governor Bill Haslam to express “our concern, and our prayers, and our support.”

Haslam wrote on Twitter that the state had deployed the National Guard and other resources to help in the effort. The governor was headed to Gatlinburg to meet with state and local fire and public safety officials.