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GATLINBURG (NBC News) – A wind-swept wildfire continued to rage across more than 500 acres of Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Tuesday morning, destroying dozens of homes in resort towns and forcing thousands of residents to flee.
At least 14 fires were burning across Sevier County outside of Knoxville, authorities said, heavily impacting the communities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge — considered the gateways to the national park and home to popular tourist destinations.
Rains sweeping across the region overnight Monday barely put a dent on the firefighting efforts as daylight revealed a lingering blanket of hazy smoke and swaths of destruction.
Emergency officials said three resorts appeared to be impacted: Westgate Resorts, Black Bear Falls and Ober Gatlinburg, an amusement park and ski area. But the Ober Gatlinburg resort said Tuesday morning on Facebook that “our property is okay.”
Elsewhere in Gatlinburg, the scene was utter devastation: At least 30 structures were destroyed overnight, including a 16-story hotel and an apartment complex, officials said. About 75 to 100 homes in the Cobbly Nob section were also gutted.
The downtown and other areas were evacuated Monday night from the town of 4,000 permanent residents, and about 1,300 people were placed into shelters throughout the county, according to NBC affiliate WBIR.
As many as 14,000 residents and visitors were believed to have been evacuated from Gatlinburg, where power was knocked out to thousands.
Three people with severe burns were taken to a Knoxville hospital, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. A fourth person with burns to their face was also seeking medical care. Currently, there are no reports of fatalities.
Flames were about 50 yards away from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, and the smoke from the fires required employees to abandon the facility before ensuring the more than 10,000 animals were OK, Tennessee Ripley Attractions general manager Ryan DeSear told WBIR.
In neighboring Pigeon Forge, its main attraction Dollywood — named after country superstar Dolly Parton — was not damaged, a spokesman said, but the fire was coming perilously close.
The park itself was not destroyed, 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.
The park suspended its operations through at least Wednesday.
“The traffic is horrible. It’s a mass exodus,” Mike Gill, who was trying to leave the area along with his wife, Betty, told NBC News. “A roller coaster is on fire at Goats on the Roof,” a theme park in Pigeon Forge.
Hampering firefighters battling the blaze have been the winds. Sustained winds were at 30 to 40 mph for about 10 to 12 hours overnight, said Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash, who called the area inferno “unprecedented.” The winds at times reached 80 mph.
“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’s) been just unbelievable what we’ve experienced here.”
“We urge the public to pray,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller added at a news conference Monday night. “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.”
What sparked the main fire in the national park was unclear, but officials say it appears to be “human-caused.”