The Southeast's spate of freakish fall fires continued on Monday night. Tinderbox conditions and powerful winds whipped up a firestorm in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, forcing the evacuation of at least 14,000 residents from the gateway communities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Fleeing residents documented a harrowing nighttime escape on social media as flames licked the side of the road and smoke clogged the air. "This is a fire for the history books," Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said. "It's unlike anything we've ever seen."
During a press conference on Tuesday, Werner and Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said that based on initial estimates, at least 140 homes have been destroyed by the blaze, dubbed the Chimney Top Fire. Werner said his home was likely one of those lost. In addition, he said up to 2,000 people evacuated to Red Cross shelters.
Gatlinburg is one of the gateways to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most trafficked park in the U.S. with 10.7 million visitors in 2015. The town itself sees 11 million tourists annually, with many coming to visit the park and the town's resorts and attractions, including Dollywood in neighboring Pigeon Forge. While the downtown core appears to have made it through the fire unscathed, some resorts are reporting damage.
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Jamie Sanders, a public affairs employee at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the fire was likely human-caused, though investigators are still trying to pin down more specific details. But weather conditions conspired to cause a massive blow up on Monday evening. Intense winds - which Sanders said gusted up to 87 mph - sent embers flying, sparking new fires faster than firefighters could keep pace.