Tennessee Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) remains on standby if needed to assist in the response to more than a dozen wildfires blazing in East Tennessee. Radio amateurs in individual communities have been volunteering to support the fire response, however. The fires are threatening the resort communities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Force, and thousands already have evacuated. Spurred on by high winds and tinder-dry conditions, a wildfire that started on the Chimney Top Mountain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park swept into communities outside the park on Monday. Heavy wind gusts, some exceeding 70 MPH, also carried blazing embers aloft, and these started new fires at some distance to the initial fire. Power lines also were downed, sometimes causing additional fires to erupt.
Tennessee Section Manager Keith Miller, N9DGK, and Assistant Section Emergency Coordinator Bill Farnham, KI4FZT, told ARRL that Tennessee ARES is on standby, and all Amateur Radio response is being handled locally in Sevier, Jefferson, and Knox counties, with no need for outside assistance at this point.
Miller and Farnham said there has been a request for Amateur Radio support from the American Red Cross to provide communication between the Red Cross Incident Command and two area shelters. This request has been filled by local radio amateurs.
No fatalities have resulted from the wildfires, but three people suffered serious burns, and numerous homes and businesses in Gatlinburg have been destroyed. The State Emergency Operations Center in Nashville has been activated at a level 3 state of emergency.
“Conditions remain extremely dangerous with trees expected to continue to fall,” Great Smoky Mountains National Park said in a news release posted to its Facebook page. “Officials are asking that motorists stay off the roadways throughout the area. Travel in the Gatlinburg area is limited to emergency traffic only. The National Park is closed at the Gatlinburg entrance.”
Authorities have issued evacuation orders for Gatlinburg and neighboring areas, including part of Pigeon Forge, home to the Dollywood theme park. More than 1,300 residents have taken shelter so far. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has evacuated all visitors and employees from affected areas. Rain moved into the area on Monday evening, although forecasters say that weather system will bring more wind with it.
“Even with the rain that is currently falling there, the fires continue to burn and structures remain engulfed with little hope that the rainfall will bring immediate relief,” the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) said in a statement.
The Chimney Top Fire alone covers some 550 acres.