ATLANTA (AP) — Raging wildfires fueled by high winds forced the evacuation of thousands of people and damaged or burned hundreds of homes and other buildings in a popular vacation resort town on the border of the Smoky Mountains National Park as National Guard troops arrived early Tuesday to help overwhelmed firefighters battle the blaze.
The winds toppled dead trees and fanned flames eating their way across forest floors dried out by a relentless drought that has spread across several Southern states and provided fuel for the fires in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina.
As a strong storm system approached some of the largest wildfires, the rain signaled new hope for firefighters working to extinguish the blazes. But experts predicted rains Tuesday from one storm system would not be enough to end the drought.
The storms appeared to be taking aim at the nearly 28,000-acre Rough Ridge Fire in north Georgia and the nearly 25,000-acre Rock Mountain Fire that began in Georgia and then spread deep into North Carolina.
In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, officials said hundreds of homes and other buildings, including a 16-story hotel, were damaged or destroyed by flames. Emergency officials ordered evacuations in downtown Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and in other areas of Sevier County near the Smoky Mountains while crews continue to battle the blaze, which also had crept to the edge of the Dollywood theme park. No deaths have been reported, though several people were injured, emergency officials said.
Officials say there are about 1,200 people sheltering at the Gatlinburg Community Center and the Rocky Top Sports Park. Several other shelters have opened to house those forced from their homes. TV broadcasts showed residents streaming out of town just as rain started to wet roads.
Workers at an aquarium evacuated because of the wildfires were concerned about the thousands of animals housed there. Ryan DeSears, general manager of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, told WBIR-TV the building was still standing and all workers had been evacuated late Monday. However, he said workers were anxious to return to check on the well-being of the 10,518 animals.
The rain forecast “puts the bull’s-eye of the greatest amounts right at the bull’s-eye of where we’ve been having our greatest activity,” said Dave Martin, deputy director of operations for fire and aviation management with the southern region of the U.S. Forest Service.
The projected rainfall amounts “really lines up with where we need it,” Martin said Monday. “We’re all knocking on wood.”
After weeks of punishing drought, any rain that falls should be soaked up quickly, forecasters said. It will provide some relief but won’t end the drought — or the fire threat, they said.
Drought conditions will likely persist, authorities said. The problem is that rainfall amounts have been 10 to 15 inches below normal during the past three months in many parts of the South, authorities said.
“I think we racked up deficits that are going to be too much to overcome with just one storm system,” said Mark Svoboda, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“I would say it’s way too early to say ‘Yes, this drought is over,'” Svoboda said. “Does it put a dent in it? Yes, but we have a long ways to go.”
The rain also brings danger because strong winds at the leading edge of the storms can topple trees and limbs that can kill and injure firefighters, he said.
In Mississippi, trees were reported downed in nearly 20 counties across the state. Sustained winds of 30 to 40 mph with gusts of more than 50 mph were reported and more than 2 inches of rain fell in some areas.
Power outages peaked at more than 23,000 statewide in Mississippi. Powerlines downed by winds sparked grass fires in four counties, said Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
The storms moved across Alabama on Monday night and fell on Georgia during the overnight hours. High wind warnings were issued for mountainous areas in northern parts of Georgia.
In South Carolina, the stormy forecast was giving hope to firefighters battling a blaze in the northwest corner of the state. The South Carolina Forestry Commission hopes to contain the Pinnacle Mountain fire by the middle of next week.
More rain was expected Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.