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March 19, 2013

Rain dampens wildfire near Great Smoky Mountains

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. — Heavy rain helped firefighters contain a Tennessee wildfire Monday after flames burned nearly 60 rental cabins in a resort area outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The fire spread across about 160 acres and forced up to 200 people who had been staying in cabins in the area to evacuate.

At the height of the fire, about 100 firefighters from about 30 fire departments battled the blaze that was reported Sunday afternoon, said Ben Bryson, a fire resources coordinator with the Tennessee Division of Forestry.

Firefighters had the fire contained Monday morning, but flames broke through the lines early Monday afternoon before rains from a passing storm system began dousing the flames.

Fire officials had worried earlier that wind-whipped flames might jump a ridgeline and threaten Pigeon Forge, a popular tourism destination that’s home to country star Dolly Parton’s amusement park, Dollywood.

The National Guard sent in helicopters to scoop up water from a nearby lake to air drop on the fire. But then the series of downpours moved in, dropping more water than the helicopters could.

“We had about three downpours that allowed them to get the fire back under control,” said Dean Flener, a spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

Flener said there had been two minor injuries but no deaths. Most firefighters were being pulled back though a small crew was to remain on duty during the night to make sure the blaze didn’t start growing again, he said.

Officials have not said what caused the fire.

John Helt was cleaning a cabin Sunday afternoon in Black Bear Ridge Resort when someone alerted him to the spreading fire, he told The Knoxville News Sentinel.

“I went running down there, and I noticed the fire started on the porch where there was a hot tub. I found out (the cabin) was empty.”

Helt said he ran through the area knocking on cabin doors to alert people to the fire, running past cabins in flames.

“I don’t ever want to see nothing like that ever again,” Helt said. “The flames were so hot I nearly passed out from the heat.”

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency declared a state emergency Monday morning to make resources available, said Dean Flener, a TEMA spokesman. He said the declaration did not mean the situation was escalating.

Andy and Cassie Endris told the Knoxville newspaper that they traveled to the resort from Indiana with another couple to celebrate a birthday. After hiking and then watching a show and having dinner in Pigeon Forge, they headed back to their cabin and found the roads closed and saw an orange glow from the mountaintop.

“It’s just stuff. Everything is replaceable,” Cassie Endris said of their clothes and a laptop left in the cabin.

“We’re all safe. I’m just shook up,” she said.

Paul and Megan Reagan live in the area. They went to church Sunday night and firefighters later escorted them to their home to retrieve medicine, diapers and formula for their daughter.

“We’ve got what we need,” Megan Reagan said, fighting back tears.

The couple planned to spend the night with Megan’s mother.

“We’ve got our family, and we’ve got God, but it’s still just scary,” she said.

A separate brush fire was extinguished at Dollywood on Saturday night but park officials said that fire would not affect the season opening this weekend.

 

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