3 killed as Smokies wildfire forces evacuation of 14,000

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Three people have died in a 500-acre wildfire around Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, authorities said Tuesday, but firefighters are making significant progress thanks to rain that swept through overnight.

At least three people died in what Gov. Bill Haslam called "the largest fire in the last hundred years in the state of Tennessee." Dozens of homes were destroyed and thousands of residents had to flee in resort towns.

Images from Tennessee:

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Firefighters stand by a destroyed home after a wildfire forced the mandatory evacuation of Gatlinburg, Tennessee in a picture released November 30, 2016. Tennessee Highway Patrol/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Troopers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol help residents leave an area under threat of wildfire after a mandatory evacuation was ordered in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in a picture released November 30, 2016. Tennessee Highway Patrol/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Smoke plumes from wildfires are shown in the Great Smokey Mountains near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, U.S., November 28, 2016. Photo taken November 28, 2016. Courtesy of National Park Services Staff/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
A wildfire burns on a hillside after a mandatory evacuation was ordered in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in a picture released November 30, 2016. Tennessee Highway Patrol/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Troopers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol help residents leave an area under threat of wildfire after a mandatory evacuation was ordered in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in a picture released November 30, 2016. Tennessee Highway Patrol/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Motorists stop to view wildfires in the Great Smokey Mountains near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, U.S., November 28, 2016. Photo taken November 28, 2016. Courtesy of National Park Services Staff/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: Residents including Tyler Alden (2nd R) and Caleb Graves (R) gather to clear debris and put out small fires near surrounding homes as the remains of their neighbors' homes smolder after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: The remains of a business smolders after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: (L-R) Residents Kirk Wallace, Caleb Graves and Tyler Alden gather to clear debris and put out small fires near surrounding homes as the remains of their neighbors' homes smolder after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: The remains of a home smolders after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: The remains of homes and vehicles smolder after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: Emergency vehicles race by the remains of businesses and homes as they smolder after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: (L-R) Residents Kirk Wallace, Caleb Graves and Tyler Alden gather to clear debris and put out small fires near surrounding homes as the remains of their neighbors' homes smolder after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: The remains of a Jeep rental business smolders after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 30: Smoke fills the air and surrounds businesses and resorts in the wake of a wildfire November 30, 2016 in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Drought conditions and high winds helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 30: Smoke fills the air and surrounds businesses and resorts in the wake of a wildfire November 30, 2016 in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Drought conditions and high winds helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 30: Smoke fills the air and surrounds businesses and resorts in the wake of a wildfire November 30, 2016 in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Drought conditions and high winds helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
Smoke surrounds a home as seen from aboard a National Guard helicopter near Gatlinburg, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Thousands of people have fled deadly wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes and a resort in the Great Smoky Mountains. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
Burned structures are seen from aboard a National Guard helicopter near Gatlinburg, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. The fires spread quickly on Monday night, when winds topping 87 mph whipped up the flames, catching residents and tourists in the Gatlinburg area by surprise. Police banged on front doors and told people to get out immediately. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
A burned out building smolders in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. The fatal wildfires swept over the tourist town the night before, causing widespread damage. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)
Smoke from wildfires rise above the mountains, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, near Gatlinburg, Tenn. Thousands of people have fled wildfires that killed at least three people and destroyed hundreds of homes and a resort in the Great Smoky Mountains. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Destroyed homes sit among burned trees Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016, near Gatlinburg, Tenn., after a wildfire swept through the area Monday. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
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At least 14 fires were burning across Sevier County outside Knoxville, authorities said, ravaging parts of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge — communities considered the gateways to the national park and home to popular tourist destinations such as Dollywood.

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

Emergency officials said three resorts appeared to be affected: Westgate, Black Bear Falls and Ober Gatlinburg, an amusement park and ski area. But Ober Gatlinburg said Tuesday on Facebook that "our property is okay."

Dollywood — main attraction In the town of Pigeon Forge, named for country music superstar Dolly Parton — wasn't damaged, a spokesman said, but the fire was coming perilously close.

The theme park itself wasn't burning, although more than a dozen cabins it manages were burned. Families staying in 50 rooms at the park's DreamMoore Resort as well as 19 cabins on the property had to be evacuated.

All evacuations in Pigeon Forge were lifted Tuesday afternoon, and most businesses were open, town officials announced. But Dollywood suspended operations through at least Wednesday.

"I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken," Parton said in a statement, adding, "It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared."

Parton, a native of Sevier County, had released a public service announcement with Smokey Bear on Sunday just hours before the wildfires erupted. She warned of forest fires and troubling drought conditions.

In neighboring Gatlinburg, the scene was utter devastation: About half of the town's 10 square miles were affected, with more than 100 structures damaged, including a 16-story hotel and an apartment complex, officials said. Seventy-five 75 to 100 homes in the Cobbly Nob section were also gutted.

The downtown and other areas of the town of 4,000 permanent residents were evacuated Monday night, and about 2,000 people were placed into shelters throughout the county, said Miller, the fire chief.

As many as 14,000 residents and visitors were believed to have been evacuated from Gatlinburg, where power was knocked out to nearly 12,000.

At least 12 people were treated at hospitals in Knoxville and Nashville, three of them in critical condition with severe burns, emergency and hospital officials said, but there were no immediate reports of deaths.

Tennessee Highway Patrol Lt. Bill Miller said on MSNBC that the communities were resilient and would rebuild.

"I do believe in my heart that they will," he said.

Flames were about 50 yards from Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, and the smoke forced employees to abandon the facility before ensuring that the more than 10,000 animals were OK, Ryan DeSear, general manager of Tennessee Ripley Attractions, told NBC station WBIR of Knoxville.

Police escorted an emergency team of marine biologists and other experts back to the aquarium Tuesday morning, Ripley officials said, adding that they're "happy to report that the animals are safe."

The aquarium had a live web camera streaming from inside before the feed went down.

Mike Gill, who was trying to leave the area along with his wife, Betty, described traffic as "horrible."

"It's a mass exodus," Gill told NBC News. "A roller coaster is on fire at Goats on the Roof," a theme park in Pigeon Forge.

Hampering firefighters have been the winds. Sustained winds were at 30 to 40 mph for about 10 to 12 hours overnight, said Cassius Cash, superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, who called the inferno "unprecedented." The winds reached 80 mph at times.

"Nothing that we've experienced in the 24 hours has prepared for what we've experienced here in the last 24 hours," Cash told WBIR. It has "been just unbelievable what we've experienced here."

What sparked the main fire in the national park was unclear, but officials say it appeared to have been "human-caused."

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