share
by Steve Megargee, Associated Press | November 29, 2016

PIGEON FORGE, Tenn. (AP) -- Raging wildfires fueled by high winds forced the evacuation of thousands of people and were believed to have wiped out an entire resort of more than 100 buildings in the Great Smoky Mountains as National Guard troops arrived early Tuesday to help overwhelmed firefighters.

Rain had begun to fall in some areas, but experts predicted it would not be enough to end the relentless drought that has spread across several Southern states and provided fuel for fires now burning for weeks in states including Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina.

The storms appeared to be taking aim at the nearly 28,000-acre Rough Ridge Fire in north Georgia and the nearly 25,000-acre Rock Mountain Fire that began in Georgia and then spread deep into North Carolina.

Rain showers ended in the Gatlinburg, Tennessee, area about 8 a.m. Tuesday, said National Weather Service meteorologist Sam Roberts. He said no more meaningful rainfall was expected until about midnight Tuesday, and would last through Wednesday.

Based on preliminary surveys of the area, the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa in Gatlinburg "is likely entirely gone," the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said in a news release. The agency had previously said it had reports that the Ober Gatlinburg amusement park and ski area had been destroyed as well, but later said resort officials had checked in and said the property was fine.

Dollywood representatives say the theme park hasn't been damaged by wildfires, but more than a dozen cabins operated by the park have been damaged or destroyed.

Dollywood has suspended park operations at least through Wednesday. Its DreamMore resort will be open on a limited basis as a shelter and for registered guests.

Hundreds of homes and other buildings, including a 16-story hotel, also were damaged or destroyed by flames.

Emergency officials ordered evacuations in downtown Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and in other areas of Sevier County near the Great Smoky Mountains. About 14,000 residents and visitors were evacuated from Gatlinburg alone, officials said.