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3 Dead, Over 14,000 Evacuated in Tennessee's 'Largest Fire in the Last Hundred Years'

Gatlinburg, Tennessee on Tuesday, Nov. 29. Image via Erik Schelzig/AP Photo.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee on Tuesday, Nov. 29. Image via Erik Schelzig/AP Photo.

Over a dozen fires have decimated nearly 15,000 acres in the area surrounding Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountain National Park, according to reports, forcing thousands to evacuate and destroying parts of resort towns Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. “This is a fire for the history books,” Gatlinburg fire chief Greg Miller told NBC News. “The likes of this has never been seen here.” Gov. Bill Haslam called it “the largest fire in the last hundred years in the state of Tennessee.”

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NBC News reports that the wildfire, which started Monday, has killed three people and hospitalized more than a dozen, with three more people in critical condition with severe burns. Officials say it appears to have been human-caused, but conditions in the region have been unusually fire-friendly; the entire Southeastern U.S., typically a region that gets a lot of rain, is experiencing remarkable drought conditions, with fires burning across Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama. All except Virginia have governors who have denied or downplayed the existence of man-made climate change.

Climate modelers at the University of Idaho and Columbia University’s Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) recently found that anthropogenic climate change has doubled the expansion of forest fires in the western United States (although the eastern U.S. seems relevant now, too).

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The fire destroyed at least 150 buildings. Gatlinburg mayor Mike Werner was one of many who lost homes, as well as his business of 30 years, the New York Times reports. From the Associated Press:

“There was fire everywhere. It was like we were in hell,” 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.”

Dolly Parton’s eponymous and well-loved park, Dollywood, was narrowly spared.

“I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken,” Parton wrote in a statement posted to her website. “I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe.”

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In addition to the property destruction, loss of life, and economic hits regions are experiencing with these fires, trees, which perform the fundamental task of pulling carbon from the atmosphere, release all that carbon back into the air when they burn. The Washington Post reported last year that according to a 2014 National Climate Assessment study, “the nation’s forests could flip from being a net carbon ‘sink’ (storing more carbon than they lose each year) to being a ‘source’ of emissions” by 2030 or earlier.

Click here for ideas on how to donate to the affected area.

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.

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DISCUSSION

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Talk about living up to your name. A couple of weeks ago while these fires were burning through NC, I could smell the smoke wafting over the city even though the fire, itself, was a couple of towns and another city away. It was that huge. Children were being kept in schools because so many kids were complaining about allergies and staff were afraid that asthma attacks could and would be triggered.

Californians, how the hell do you live with this?