Smokies wildfire wreaks havoc across state line
Western North Carolina has escaped structure loss from recent wildfires, but a forest fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park quickly spread into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge this past week, causing three deaths and hundreds of burned buildings.
On Wednesday, Nov. 25, Park officials responded to a fire report around 5:30 p.m near the summit of the Chimney Tops trail on the north side. By Monday night, the fire reached all the way into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, causing widespread structure loss.
As of Wednesday morning, the fires in the Park and Sevier County, Tennessee, have burned more than 15,000 acres, according to the National Park Service.
The fire first started spreading out of control from Sunday night to Monday morning, growing approximately 500 acres overnight due to extreme winds.
“On Monday, the Park recorded average wind speed of 20 mph with gusts up to 50 mph,” a GSMNP press release said. “Because of extreme wind conditions on Monday, air crews were unable to fly to view the fires or drop water for suppression efforts.”
Another small fire was reported early Monday morning near the Twin Creeks Picnic Pavilion on Cherokee Orchard Road. Park officials said they are unsure if it is a spot fire caused by the Chimney 2 fire or a separate fire.
The fire appears to be human caused, said Chief Ranger Steve Kloster in a press release.
Since Monday, the Park closed Newfound Gap road, Cherokee Orchard Road, Elkmont Road, among others. In addition, 19 trails are closed, most notably Alum Cave, Chimney Tops, Rainbow Falls, and Little River trails, and 10 campsites are also closed.
Park Headquarters in Tennessee has lost all power and phone services, and all park facilities in Tennessee are closed. The Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center is still open.
Highway 441 remains closed from Smokemont through Gatlinburg, as of Wednesday.
On Wednesday morning, Park officials said Mt. LeConte Lodge and Elkmont campground and historic buildings escaped from any fire damage, but some Elkmont buildings suffered roof damage from fallen trees.
Kloster asked that if anyone has any information about the fire to call the Park’s tip line at 865-436-1580.
Previously, Chimney Tops had a small 0.25-acre fire on Nov. 16, but it was controlled and suppressed quickly.
The Great Smoky Mountains Association is taking donations to help the Park service and GSMA employees who lost their homes. The GSMA said three rangers and one GSMA employee have lost their home so far.
WNC fires contained
The Tellico fire in Swain and Macon counties is currently 95 percent contained, and Gil Knight, supervisor of the Rocky Mountain Blue Team, said he expects it to be declared 100 percent contained within the next couple days.
“We are not seeing any real fire activity, just a few hot spots in the interior, and It hasn’t grown for quite sometime.” he said.
Knight said the rain the past couple of days has been very good but not enough to call it a “season-ending event,” which is a massive amount of rain that officials could say the fire is officially extinguished.
The Maple Springs Fire in Graham County is at 78 percent containment, and the area received an inch and a half of rain on Monday night through early Tuesday morning.
Cathy Dowd, media spokesperson for the Nantahala National Forest, said the rains wouldn’t be enough to extinguish either fire.
“Rains will help extinguish later fuels, but it’s not enough rain like bigger things burning like stumps and logs. Those still have the potential to reignite things,” Dowd said. “Rain certainly helps, but it’s not the thing that helps with containment.”
Dowd said the cause for both fires is still under investigation.