Gatlinburg fires appear to destroy 3 resorts; thousands evacuated

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- Wildfires raged in and near eastern Tennessee's mountainside resort town of Gatlinburg on Tuesday, spurring evacuations and prompting conflicting reports about whether certain popular resorts have been destroyed or are in danger.

Several homes and businesses in the town nestled among the Great Smoky Mountains have been destroyed, including a 16-story hotel and an apartment complex that was consumed by flames, the state emergency management agency said Tuesday morning.

"If you're a person of prayer, we could use your prayers," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said Monday evening as crews battled wind gusts of up to 70 mph.

Four people have been injured in the blazes, which have been spurred by strong winds and the Southeast's worst drought in nearly a decade, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Dean Flener said Tuesday.

The fires have forced evacuations from downtown Gatlinburg -- a city of about 4,000 residents but a vacation attraction for many more -- as well as the town of Pigeon Forge and nearby communities.

But the scope of the disaster was difficult to quantify, and conflicting reports emerged about whether major resorts were among the properties destroyed.

Flener said three Gatlinburg-area resorts appear to have been destroyed, including Ober Gatlinburg, the ski resort and amusement park that overlook the town.

But Ober Gatlinburg's Twitter account posted Tuesday morning that the "property is okay."

Flener, citing initial reports from Sevier County emergency management officials, said the other apparently destroyed resorts were the Black Bear Falls log-cabin rental resort and the Westgate Mountain Resort & Spa.

Comments from representatives of those businesses weren't immediately available.

Other popular Gatlinburg attractions appeared under threat, including Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. Staff were forced to evacuate Monday evening, and the animals still are inside, Ripley Entertainment Regional Manager Ryan DeSear said.

DeSear said that according to reports he has received, the building is still standing. The facility's webcam showed lights and power still working inside, but he's concerned about the deteriorating air quality, as well as the smoke and flames.

DeSear said he's hoping some staff will be allowed back into the facility Tuesday morning to assess the damage.

school's buildings had burned, but thankfully all personnel were safe.

"It is raining and winds have died down which offers hope, but the resources are stretched too thin with this much fire everywhere," he wrote.

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Good news and bad news

There may be some good news: Rain moved into the area late Monday night, heading east.

But with the rainfall came some bad news.

"Unfortunately, some wind gusts will accompany this rain," noted the National Weather Service.

High winds are possible across eastern Tennessee, southwest Virginia and southwest North Carolina, according to the National Weather Service. They could topple trees and power lines and fan the flames.