Wildfires tore through Tennessee on Monday and continued into Tuesday, forcing the evacuation of the tourist resort town of Gatlinburg and several nearby communities.
At least 14,000 people were forced to flee Monday night amid what noted climatologist Bob Henson said appeared to be "the most damaging wildland fire to strike a Southeast U.S. community in many decades."
"This is a fire for the history books. The likes of this has never been seen here," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said Tuesday morning, though he added that "the worst is definitely over with."
The blaze, known as the Chimney Tops Fire, reportedly killed at least three people, injured at least 12, and burned at least 150 homes and businesses. It sparked when embers on the Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park wafted into Gatlinburg's Twin Creek and Mynatt Park areas, where strong winds fanned them into flames and caused it to spread rapidly.
"That's nowhere to be when you're trying to fight a fire," Miller said Tuesday. "That is hurricane force. Within a span of 15 minutes, we were dispatched to more than 20 structure fires."
Henson explained the climate factors that opened the door to such a destructive blaze:
The southern Appalachians have endured their hottest and driest autumn on record, setting the stage for dozens of wildfires across the region that culminated in Monday's blazes.
[....] Moisture is typically plentiful across the Southeast, including Gatlinburg, which averages 56" of rain per year. Droughts here are not typically as prolonged as they are in the U.S. West. When they do strike, their impact on the lush, normally-well-watered landscape can quickly become intense.
And decades of fire suppression in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has allowed less fire-resistant tree species, like maple and hickory, to take over the region near Gatlinburg, Henson noted.
Residents trying to flee the flames posted eye-popping photos and video of the fires, including this one by Michael Luciano in Chalet Village, an area west of Gatlinburg:
Gatlinburg fire crews had tried to prepare for the conditions by following certain predictive models, the News Sentinel reported, but "to be honest, all that got thrown out the window at that point," Miller said.
Cassius Cash, the park's superintendent, told the News Sentinel, "In my 25 years of federal [park] service, I've participated in many fires, but none of that could have prepared me for this." He called the winds on Monday "unprecedented."
More than 2,000 people were taken to emergency shelters throughout Monday and into Tuesday morning.
One survivor, Shari Deason, described her experience. "We were watching it, but we didn't really know how bad it was until somebody said we had to leave," she said. "I didn't cry last night, and I didn't cry this morning, but the more I see of all this, I don't know what I'm going to do."