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Fires Burn Through Tennessee Amid Devastating Drought

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to Tennessee where wildfires have roared into two popular tourist destinations - Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. City leaders ordered evacuations as the flames surrounded the resort towns. Three people have died, and the threat is not over yet. Brandon Hollingsworth of member station WUOT reports.

BRANDON HOLLINGSWORTH, BYLINE: Gatlinburg, Tenn., is the northern gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and today, it was really smoky. The city sits in a narrow valley surrounded by steep-sided mountains. It's filled with hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions that draw tens of thousands of visitors each year.

Last night, hurricane-force winds blew the fires right into Gatlinburg. As people scrambled out of town, Fire Chief Greg Miller says the city's first responders stayed behind.

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CHIEF GREG MILLER: It's difficult to go out into a community and try to protect and serve others when your own property and everything that you've worked for is burning down.

HOLLINGSWORTH: Officials estimate about half of Gatlinburg's 10-square-mile area was burned, though the city center was saved. It rained for the first time in weeks, but it wasn't enough to extinguish the flames. Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters says the damage is unbelievable.

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LARRY WATERS: I can tell you that we've been overwhelmed at the scene of destruction in the county and primarily in the city of Gatlinburg.

HOLLINGSWORTH: It's unclear when residents can go home or see if they still have one. The strong winds also knocked down trees and power lines, making travel within Gatlinburg impossible. Fire Chief Miller says for now, they've sealed the city off to everyone except emergency crews.

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MILLER: As you can imagine, the visibility is very poor because of the smoke and the particulate in the air. Therefore, there are areas that are too smoky that we can't see yet.

HOLLINGSWORTH: In nearby Pigeon Forge, the fire threatened Dolly Parton's theme park, Dollywood. Gatlinburg's Ripley's Aquarium escaped with little damage. That matters because tourism is such a big economic driver. Perrin Anderson of the Sevier County Mayor's Office says it's too early to tell how the local economy will be affected.

PERRIN ANDERSON: We're thankful that this didn't happen three days ago during the Thanksgiving weekend when there were a lot more people. It would have been a lot more difficult. But I have every confidence that the city and the county will bounce back after a period of recovery. They'll be back. It'll take a little time, but they'll be back.

HOLLINGSWORTH: The fire's aren't out yet, but more rain is expected over the next few days. For NPR News, I'm Brandon Hollingsworth in Gatlinburg, Tenn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.