Thousands of animals left behind at aquarium as wildfires burn in Tennessee

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Staff at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies were forced to evacuate Monday night because of at least 14 wildfires, but all of the facility’s 1,500 animals are still inside, Ripley Entertainment Regional Manager Ryan DeSear said Tuesday.

Strong winds and the Southeast’s worst drought in nearly a decade are aiding the wildfires, forcing evacuations from the popular tourist destination and nearby communities.

DeSear said that according to reports he has received, the aquarium 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.

DeSear said the 10,518 animals should be safe as long as the building has power and doesn’t catch fire. The animals can survive for 24 hours without human intervention if the facility is functioning properly, DeSear said.

At least 30 structures have burned in Gatlinburg, including a 16-story hotel.

Several homes and businesses in downtown Gatlinburg were “completely lost to fire,” according to authorities.

By Tuesday morning, the scope of the disaster was difficult to quantify, with officials unable to give estimates for the number of fires, their size, injuries and how many structures had burned.

At Dollywood, the theme park owned by Dolly Parton in Pigeon Forge, officials with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park evacuated guests from its resort and cabins as flames approached the area.

The property had not suffered any damage as of late Monday night and its crew was working to protect the park areas, said Pete Owens, director of media relations at Dollywood.