Wildfires scorch Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, destroying homes and businesses

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- Wildfires damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings in and near eastern Tennessee's resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge in a dizzying 24 hours, officials said, but responders still are trying to evaluate the destruction caused by the flames that spread with little warning from the Great Smoky Mountains.

Some major vacation attractions appeared to have been spared by the fires that spread to the communities Monday evening, and Gatlinburg's fire chief said the worst appeared to be over Tuesday morning.

But many homes and businesses in the Gatlinburg area have been destroyed by the fires, which strong winds pushed from the wooded mountains into the more-inhabited areas Monday afternoon, authorities said. And officials were working to assess how much has been damaged in a vacation hub now enveloped by dingy smoke.

Wildfires have burned in parts of the Southeast for weeks; fueled by winds and the region's worst drought in nearly a decade.
Here's what you need to know:

• More than 14,000 residents and visitors are believed to have been evacuated from Gatlinburg alone, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said Tuesday morning. Evacuations also have been ordered in other communities including Pigeon Forge.
• About 12 people were taken to hospitals, mostly with non-life-threatening injuries, Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said. Three with burns were taken to the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, the hospital said.
• Among the hundreds of structures destroyed in the area, more than 100 were in Gatlinburg, Mayor Mike Werner said Tuesday morning. That includes an apartment complex, TEMA said. More than 150 other structures in the county are believed damaged or destroyed.
• Werner said he believes his house is among those lost. "But things can be rebuilt. Our downtown's intact, and that's really great for our economy" and the city's future, the mayor said. "We will rebuild, and we will remain the premier resort community that we are. ... It will be OK."
• Miller said about 14 active structure fires remained in the city Tuesday morning, but because winds have died down, "the worst is definitely over with."
• Fires were at the edge of the Dollywood theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge on Tuesday morning, officials said.
• All 10,500 animals at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg are safe, the aquarium said on Twitter. Staff members were forced to evacuate from the attraction on Monday.

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