Wildfires Ravage Tourism Hotspot in East Tennessee

(CN) – National Guard troops arrived in Gatlinburg, Tenn., early Tuesday to help firefighters battle wildfires that killed three people, destroyed hundreds of buildings in the resort town and forced thousands of people to evacuate.

State officials ordered mandatory evacuations in downtown Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, as well as other areas near the Smoky Mountains National Park. About 14,000 people were evacuated in Gatlinburg alone.

Preliminary surveys indicate that Westgate Resorts, which has over 100 buildings, has likely been destroyed by the fire.

Three people have reportedly died from the wildfires. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday it is the biggest fire in the state in the past 100 years.

The general manager of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies told a local news station that the building was still standing and workers were evacuated late Monday, but there are thousands of animals still inside.

More than 1,000 people are sheltering at the Gatlinburg Community Center and the Rocky Top Sports Park.

The wildfire was preceded by a drought that has seen 10 to 15 fewer inches of rain than normal during the past three months for much of the South.

Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, told the New York Times that “there’s going to be hundreds of structures in the county that have had some type of devastation or have been destroyed by the wildfires.”

The wildfires continued to burn Tuesday morning, even as rain began to fall in the Gatlinburg area.

Country music icon Dolly Parton said in a statement that she is “heartbroken” over the wildfires.

“I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe,” Parton said. “It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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