Gatlinburg, Tenn. — With flames dripping from tree branches like lava and the air filled with embers, thousands of people raced through a hell-like landscape as they fled from wildfires that killed three people and destroyed hundreds of homes and a resort in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Fanned by hurricane-force winds, the flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the theme park named after country music legend and local hero Dolly Parton. But the attraction was spared any significant damage.
The fires spread quickly on Monday night, when winds topping 87 mph whipped up the flames, catching residents and tourists in the Gatlinburg area by surprise. Police banged on front doors and told people to get out immediately. Some trekked 20 minutes to catch lifesaving rides on trolleys usually reserved for tours and wedding parties.
“There was fire everywhere. It was like we were in hell. Hell opened up,” said Linda Monholland, who was working at Park View Inn in Gatlinburg when she and five other people fled on foot. “Walking through hell, that’s what it was. I can’t believe it. I never want to see something like that again in my life, ever.”
In all, more than 14,000 residents and tourists were forced to evacuate the tourist city in the mountains, where some hotspots persisted and a curfew was planned for Tuesday night.
No details on the deaths were immediately available. More than a dozen people were injured.
The winds calmed and rain fell on some of the fires early Tuesday, but officials were worried that fire could spread again by evening, with forecasts calling for winds up to 60 mph.
Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said officials were still conducting search-and-rescue missions.
“We have not been able to get in all of the areas,” Miller said. “We pray that we don’t experience any more fatalities, but there are still areas that we are trying to get to” because of downed trees and power lines.
Photos of the Gatlinburg area showed scorched cars and buildings and soot-covered debris scattered across roads.
Rain forecast for much of Wednesday should help the area.
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