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At least 3 dead in worst Tennessee wildfires in recent memory; dozens of homes burned

"This is a fire for the history books. The likes of this has never been seen here," fire official Greg Miller said.

By
Stephen Feller and Doug G. Ware
The glow from a wildfire can be seen in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, where flames have destroyed dozens of structures. Authorities said the fires, which caused the death of at least three people, are the worst in Tennessee in more than a century. Photo courtesy Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The glow from a wildfire can be seen in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, where flames have destroyed dozens of structures. Authorities said the fires, which caused the death of at least three people, are the worst in Tennessee in more than a century. Photo courtesy Great Smoky Mountains National Park

GATLINBURG, Tenn., Nov. 29 (UPI) -- At least three people have been killed in historic wildfires that have burned some of Tennessee's most famous and picturesque resort landscape, authorities said Tuesday.

Officials said all three died in separate incidents connected to the fire, but details of the victims were not immediately known, The Tennesseean reported.

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"We do not have further information on them at this time," Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. "We do not have identifications. We are working to identify those folks now."

Fire officials said more than 150 homes and other structures have been destroyed by the fires.

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Authorities said these are the worst fires Tennessee has seen in at least 100 years.

"This is a fire for the history books," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said. "The likes of this has never been seen here. But the worst is definitely over with."

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Mandatory and voluntary evacuations also spread through neighborhoods, as wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park pumped smoke throughout the area, displacing nearly 15,000 residents and shutting down roads.

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The park said it closed all its facilities "due to the extensive fire activity, and downed trees."

Flames arrived "right on the doorstep" of the Dollywood theme park overnight, a state emergency management official said. Guests were evacuated from the resort, which is 8 miles from Gatlinburg. No damage was initially reported in the park.

Nearby schools closed and the park said the smoke-filled air poses a significant health danger to those exposed to it. Several people were hospitalized for fire-related injuries, but the extent of those injuries wasn't immediately known.

Dramatic video of a family escaping Chalet Village, a resort community of mountain cabin rentals, was posted Tuesday morning. The footage shows their frantic attempts to descend a burning mountain in their vehicle, frequently having to turn around or drive over flaming trees.

Officials ordered the evacuation of Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies in the town, leaving 1,500 animals inside, Ripley Entertainment regional manager Ryan DeSear told CNN. DeSear said the aquarium was still standing, but he's worried about air quality inside the facility.

Wildfires have plagued wide swaths of the South this fall. The one chasing residents out of Gatlinburg started as a spot fire in the Twin Creeks area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which combined with low humidity and wind to start spreading. The flames have claimed about 500 acres in the park so far.

"I know that it's hard to potentially think about losing a home or a place that you've worked your entire life to build, but we are dealing with a situation that is very dynamic," Miller said. "The wind is not helping us. The rain is not here yet."

Hundreds of firefighters are attacking the blazes and officials said three Black Hawk helicopters are on constant standby, if needed.

"We urge the public to pray. We urge the public to stay off the highways. The traffic that is on the roads is emergency equipment," Miller said. "If [the public] could just stay home and stay tuned to their local media outlet."

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