GATLINBURG, Tenn. — A historic wildfire continued to burn in Gatlinburg on Tuesday, killing three people, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses, and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents.
Officials said Tuesday afternoon that three people had died in the wildfires in an area in Sevier County. The dead had not been identified yet pending the notification of next of kin.
About 100 homes have been damaged or destroyed by flames from spreading wildfires, state emergency officials said. More than 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg alone, with hundreds of them seeking refuge in emergency shelters.
About a half to three-fourths of an inch of "beneficial rain" fell in the Gatlinburg area overnight, National Weather Service meteorologist Sam Roberts said, which has "significantly reduced the fires" there. An additional inch of helpful rain is expected later Tuesday and early Wednesday, Roberts said.
The Sevier County Emergency Management Agency indicated that the Westgate Resorts, made up of more than 100 buildings, had been destroyed, and Black Bear Falls was believed to have lost every cabin.
The agency also said that Ober Gatlinburg had been destroyed, but the amusement park and ski resort posted on its Facebook page just after 9 a.m. ET that "our property is okay," and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said a video appears to show the facility is unburned.
"We are relieved to know this important Tennessee destination is still there," the state agency said in an update.
Tennessee Emergency Management Agency reported earlier it knew of no fatalities, however, three burn victims were being treated at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. All three were listed in critical condition, said a spokesman for the hospital.
However, Hillbilly Golf, major hotels, a good portion of Regan Drive and countless other businesses and homes were some of the buildings destroyed in the blaze that had firefighters working throughout the night.
"The center of Gatlinburg looks good for now," said Newmansville Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Bobby Balding. "It's the apocalypse on both sides (of downtown)."
Gatlinburg sits on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Most of Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts survived the fire. Fire did destroy two buildings at the longtime crafts campus in downtown Gatlinburg.
Thirty structures were on fire in Gatlinburg, including the Park Vista Hotel, a 16-story hotel and the Driftwood Apartment complex near the Park Vista that has "been completely inundated," said Dean Flener, spokesman for Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, in Nashville.
Initial reports from fire officials said Pi Beta Phi, an elementary school, had been destroyed. It was not.
The Space Needle and many of the properties on the main stretch are intact. Regan Drive, however, has been hard hit, according to fire crews.
Orebank Assistant Fire Chief Bradley Collins said several hotels in Gatlinburg and many houses have burned.
"It was devastating. We've seen some nice homes burning."
Ryan Holt, Greene County Volunteer Fire Department coordinator, said his agency rescued three motorists who were trapped in the area in which Gatlinburg Falls, a major cabin rental company, is located. Holt said the entire area around Gatlinburg Falls was burning.
Hillbilly Golf, which is at the entrance of Gatlinburg, also was destroyed in the fire, according to firefighters.
Firefighters said the Cobbly Nob community had been heavily damaged. Evacuations were ordered but firefighters worried some residents might have been trapped.
Local officials ordered mandatory evacuations for Mynatt Park, Park Vista, Ski Mountain and the city of Gatlinburg on Monday. Evacuations also were ordered for the north end of Pigeon Forge.
The National Guard plans to deploy personnel to help clear debris, but no timeline has been set for their arrival, Flener, of Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, said.
Sara Gentry, director of sales at Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort in Gatlinburg, said several hundred people were evacuated from the hotel and she and her four children evacuated their home and headed to Dandridge to her sister's house. The number of evacuees probably would have been higher had it been the weekend, she noted.
She said she's been talking to co-workers and friends who have lost their homes to the fire.
"This one girl was driving down Ski Mountain (Road) and watching her home burn," said Gentry. "My kids' friends have lost their homes. It's just awful."
Many evacuees went to shelters in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
“We knew we had power here and some places were losing power. We knew we had restrooms and water and a safe place to house people and give them a place to go — that’s why we opened up,” said Phil Campbell, the facilities manager at the LeConte Event Center in Pigeon Force. The facility took in 300 to 400 people Monday night.
He said he expects even more to show up.
Allen Sheets, with the American Red Cross out of Knoxville, Tenn., said the number of people at the shelter is expected to increase as trolleys and buses continue to pull up with residents.
Late Monday night Sheets said a group of approximately 200 was gathered at the Pigeon Forge Community Center.
Early Tuesday morning Sheets said cots were on the way, but blankets, food and clothes are needed. He said Wal-Mart just made a large donation, and other businesses have been helping throughout the night.
Katie Brittian, manager at the Dress Barn near the LeConte Center, said, "(The sky) was brown. The whole store smelled like smoke. Ash has been falling from the sky since 3."