As the region struggles with one of the worst droughts since 2007, it was never a question of how, but when.
What began as a small fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on November 23 has blown up overnight (both literally and figuratively—sudden wind gusts brought the fire to hundreds of new acres in just a few hours on Sunday night). Tens of thousands have been displaced, forced to flee homes and businesses. Great Smoky Mountain National Park, the most popular national park in the country, is closed until further notice. Hundreds of structures have burned, mainly houses. Entire apartment complexes are gone. Three are confirmed dead so far.
“Gatlinburg looks good for now,” Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding told WFAA-8 in Dallas. “It’s the apocalypse on both sides (of downtown).”
Tennessee is suffering from the drought that plagues the entire region, but they’ve got it especially bad. The entire state is under Severe, Extreme, or Exceptional Drought conditions, as rated by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a project administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
In recent days, high winds—gusting up to 87mph at times—carried ash and embers as far as a mile away. Electrical lines downed in the winds started fires of their own. At times, there were over three dozen separate fires burning at once.
These fires cap a severe drought and fire season unlike any in recent memory. Over 80,000 acres had burned by November 16th, when the Washington Post reported 17 distinct and active fires burning Southern Appalachia.
The Tennessee National Guard has deployed in the neighborhoods and resort towns of Gatlinsburg and Pigeon Forge to protect residents and properties. Dollywood, the theme park owned by country star Dolly Parton, is threatened by fire on every side.
“We urge the public to pray,” said Gatlinburg Fire Department Chief Greg Miller to reporters at a press conference.