Live updates: Battle continues on Smokies fire in Wears Valley, new fire at Millstone Gap

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Fueled by dangerous winds and dry leaves, the Sevier County fire that started Wednesday is slowly being contained. As crews continue battling this fire, Knox News has reporters on the scene feeding updates to this live blog. Check back regularly for the latest news.

Containment at 85 percent

At 5:45 p.m. Friday, Sevier County released an update on acreage burned and containment for both the Hatcher Mountain/Indigo Lane and Cold Springs Hollow Road fires.

The Hatcher Mountain fire containment is at 85%, and the estimated acreage was downgraded to 2,675 burned acres.

Several roads remained closed due to hot spots and for emergency personnel to continue their work. Drivers can use Little Cove Road to access Wears Valley.

The total acreage of the Cold Springs Hollow Road fire is approximately 575 acres. It is 25% contained. At least one structure in Blount County has been affected.

New, updated sources of information available for evacuees

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency has launched a Sevier County Wildfire recovery webpage to provide information on state and local resources available to help wildfire survivors.

At of 3:45 p.m. Friday, Sevier County has posted an updated dynamic map of the current fire evacuation area. After clicking on the link, users can type their address into the window to see if they are within the evacuation area.

Sevier County Fire Department details narrow escape for firefighters

Friday afternoon, Sevier County Fire Department released information on the loss of one of their tankers during the fire.

At about 11 a.m. Wednesday, firefighters were dispatched to a brush fire at 2862 Indigo Lane, the original dispatch address for what would become the Hatcher Mountain Fire. Sevier County Fire Department responded with a tanker and wildland unit and found multiple structures threatened. Tanker 111 was assigned to the top of Hatcher Mountain, the department said in its press release.

The fire became extremely erratic driven by dangerously high winds and extremely low humidity and began to make a push up the mountain directly at Tanker 111.

Crews were overtaken by fire and had to evacuate the area, leaving the tanker. The apparatus operator made it out safely and was not injured, the release stated.

"Tanker 111 was our only tanker apparatus so this is a big hit to our fleet," the department posted. "However the more important part was that our member returned home to us unharmed. Trucks are replaceable, people are not."

Evacuees play a waiting game

Troy Keith has been sleeping comfortably in his self-contained truck camper in the parking lot of the Pigeon Forge Community Center, but he's eager to get back to his house.

"I'm just rolling with the punches, see what happens," Keith said Friday. "I'm hoping we can get out of here in a few days."

Keith has lived in Sevier County for 13 years, moving here from Illinois for one reason — the mountains.

He was at his home off Wears Valley Road near Friendly Falls Wednesday, working in the yard, when he started smelling smoke.

"I seen a bunch of fire trucks drive by the house," Keith said. "Then a Blackhawk helicopter flew over, and I'm like, 'OK, this is getting serious.'"

Shortly after that, U.S. Forestry Service personnel asked him to evacuate. Since then, he's been at the Pigeon Forge evacuation center, getting help from the American Red Cross of East Tennessee, but he considered finding out how to volunteer to help with the fire.

"I used to work for the division of forestry in Kentucky, so I fought fire there," Keith said. "I know what they're up against. But I've never fought one that was so windy. That would be terrifying."

Bryan Thurston, a 16-year-old student at Pigeon Forge Junior High, lives on Wears Valley Road near the Dollar General with his dad. They also evacuated Wednesday but spent the first two nights in a local hotel before heading to the Pigeon Forge Community Center.

"It's crazy," Thurston said. "I can't believe I can't believe this is happening. I'm hoping my house is OK."

Thurston said he and his father are in good spirits and appreciate the support from the community. They plan to stay at the community center tonight.

"I'm feeling good right now. I'm feeling bad about the house, though," Thurston said.

Sevier County to start assessing damage on a house by house basis

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters was optimistic during an 11 a.m. press conference Friday, saying a great deal of progress has been made on the Hatcher Mountain/Indigo Lane fire.

"I feel like we're in a good position right now," he said.

Several shelters will remain open depending on need, Waters said, adding less than 10 people stayed at the Pigeon Forge shelter Thursday night.

Sevier County Emergency Agency Director Joe Ayers will be organizing teams to go house to house to assess damage, Waters said. That information will be mapped and will be made available online to the public later Friday afternoon, Waters said.

The teams will assess the safety of the area first and then will evaluate each house as to the level of damage, Ayers said, adding, "We're in the very beginning of the recovery process."

Hot Shot crew sent to Cold Springs Hollow Road fire

The Cold Springs Hollow Road fire remains at 800 acres with 0% containment, Mayor Larry Waters said at an 11 a.m. press conference. No structures have been affected in an area he called very mountainous and difficult terrain.

Fire crews at that are conducting a "very aggressive size-up," said Bruce Miller, the Tennessee Division of Forestry incident commander for the Hatcher Mountain fire.

They are using dozers and a 20-person Hot Shot crew from the National Park Service, Miller said, explaining that "Hot Shots" are specialized elite crews that go in with hand tools on initial attacks on fires that are less accessible.

Air operations might be possible later Friday, and are on standby, Miller said.

Friday firefighting centering around active corner on northwest side of fire

Firefighters worked through Thursday night patrolling the perimeter of the fire and protecting structures, said Brook Smith, spokesperson for the Tennessee Division of Forestry.

Crews continued to put in fire lines with bulldozers, Smith said.

Friday morning, crews were fighting one small active corner on the northwest side of the fire, working around structures and putting in fire breaks.

"It's minimal activity, just 1- to 2-foot flame lengths," Smith said. "Other than that, we're just mopping up hot spots to prevent any re-burns."

Containment grew through Thursday, new fire outbreak near Millstone Gap

As of 8 p.m. Thursday, Sevier County officials announced the Hatcher Mountain fire is 45% contained, 3,739 acres in size, and has affected more than 100 structures. A new fire on Cold Springs Hollow Road near Millstone Gap in Seymour is about 800 acres in size. Crews worked overnight on both fires, and airdrops resumed Friday morning.

Dolly Parton speaks out

East Tennessee icon and Sevierville native Dolly Parton tweeted her support late Thursday afternoon as containment efforts continued.

"I’m proud of how everyone in the area has pulled together like they always do," Parton wrote. "I’m especially proud of the brave men and women who are working to contain the fire."

Parton also said she has been keeping in touch with staff at Dollywood to make sure people and structures are safe. The park is closed today.

Efforts toward containment

Firefighters have now contained 30% of the Hatcher Mountain/Indigo Lane fire, Sevier County Emergency Management Agency announced Thursday afternoon.

New evacuations were issued Thursday evening for Smoky Ridge Way area off of Wears Valley Road because of an increase in fire conditions.

Several roads are closed because of worsening fire conditions as well, including:

  • Highway 321 from Waldens Creek to Valley View

  • Hatcher Mountain

  • Happy Hollow at South Clear Fork

  • Little Valley at Waldens Creek

  • South Helton at Waldens Creek

Sevier County Schools canceled classes for Friday because of the wildfires. The school system’s spring break is next week, so students will return to school on Monday, April 11.

More: East TN wildfire victims and first responders need help. Here are some places to start

More: In light of Smokies fire in Wears Valley, track wildfires in Tennessee with this map

Evacuation shelters an oasis for folks displaced by fire

The sound of banjo picking fills a red brick courtyard just off the Strip. If it weren’t for a the wildfire eating up the nearby mountainside, it could be a normal day in Pigeon Forge.

That brick courtyard belongs to the Pigeon Forge Community Center, where the American Red Cross has set up a shelter for those evacuating the Hatcher Mountain/Indigo Lane fire.

On the second day of the fire, the windy conditions that caused it to spread let up some. Some roads opened back up and the evacuation area was reduced.

Numbers at the shelter ebbed and flowed as families headed out to see if they could return to their residence. At its peak, 131 people took shelter at the community center.

Red Cross disaster action responder Jessica Fisher said the shelter has seen lots of vacationers from all over evacuating the rental cabins they were staying in outside of Pigeon Forge.

“They don't have anything, so we had a lot of them a lot in big groups of like 11 to 15 together,” Fisher said.

Tourists were more panicked by the evacuation notice than locals, Fisher said.

“The fear from the last time, that's heavy on everybody's mind. So everybody's like, ‘Oh my goodness. We've got to go.’ There's no waiting game on this one. They were on it,” Fisher said.

Those who are from the area worried about what they left behind — their homes, their mementos, pets that couldn’t be found in the push to evacuate.

“All they can think about when we can get home, did something happen to our home,” Fisher said.

The mood in the shelter has been mostly upbeat, she said. Even so, the anxiety is a sharp contrast to the busy glamour of Pigeon Forge’s Strip. Some families at the shelter went out to dinner shows and activities on the Strip while they waited for updates.

Fisher said she expects more visitors to the shelter as different roads are shut down.

“Everybody’s kind of in a waiting game," she added.

More: Powerful storms cause damage to homes and power outages in East Tennessee

Managing hot spots the main goal for Thursday

Firefighters spent the majority of the day Thursday patrolling the perimeter and focusing on hot spots in an effort to keep the fire from getting any bigger, said Brook Smith, spokesperson for the Tennessee Division of Forestry.

Navigating the web of cabins in the area was complicating mitigation efforts. Firefighters put in dozer lines to prevent fire from spreading, but have to weave through neighborhoods, making it more difficult to connect a dozer line through the entire fire footprint.

In the Little Valley neighborhood, rental cabins sit next to streaks of scorched earth. The fire burned through the top layer of leaf litter, leaving fuel on the ground to be reignited.

This is why firefighters are spending today doing targeted mitigation — many areas could flame back up as the wind carries embers from still smoking “hot spots.”

Hot spots are logs and stumps that hold heat and can spread sparks. Firefighters call these 100-hour fuels because they can burn for a long time. PIO Nathan Waters said the 100-hour logs had a 13% moisture content, making them extra susceptible to a fire.

New shelter information released

Seymour Heights Christian Church, (122 Boyd's Creek Highway) and the Pigeon Forge Community Center (170 Community Center Drive) are available as shelters for persons displaced by the Hatcher Mountain/Indigo Lane Fire.

Salvation Army feeding first responders

The Salvation Army Knoxville Area Command is at the Hatcher Mountain/Indigo Lane fire with its mobile canteen unit. They are providing meals, drinks, snacks and comfort to first responders battling the flames.

Major Cameron Henderson, Knoxville Area Commander, responded with the mobile canteen unit from Knoxville, along with Lt. Melissa Melching of the Sevierville Corps and other volunteers. By 11:p.m. Wednesday, they had served 280 meals, 500 bottles of water, 100 Gatorades and 425 snacks.

The Salvation Army has coordinated with local emergency management officials to set up a fixed feeding site for the time being at Pigeon Forge High School at 414 Tiger Drive.

Information line provided

Sevier County was moving deeper into recovery mode as of noon Thursday. On its webpage, the county announced it has been receiving many donation offers and are working on locations where donations can be dropped.

"Please refrain from bringing items to any locations at this time," officials posted. "We will provide donation information for both items and money later this afternoon."

The county also provided a phone number for information but asked insurance companies to hold off. Residents and visitors needing general information, or having information to provide, on areas affected by the Hatcher Mountain Road/Indigo Lane Fire may call 865-774-3899.

Damage assessment to start soon

At 11:20 a.m. Thursday, Sevier County officials said assessments of property damage will begin soon in the areas affected by the fire.

Earlier, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said 11,000 homes had been evacuated throughout the day.

“I think the worst is over, but I think there's still a risk," he said.

Over 200 people and 70 agencies have been involved in the firefighting efforts, Water said.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene; one man was injured Wednesday and flown out by LifeStar. There was no update on his condition this morning.

Blackhawks deployed

The Tennessee National Guard on Thursday morning provided six UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to support the wildfire response.

Around 8 a.m., the first two Blackhawk helicopters departed from McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base with Bambi Buckets used to provide hundreds of gallons of water to fight wildfires. Each aircraft will make multiple trips. The Blackhawks will pick up water from nearby water sources and transport it directly to the needed area. Two more Blackhawks crews left at 10 a.m. and two more crews were to deploy at noon.

At approximately 11:30 a.m., one of the helicopters experienced engine failure, resulting in an emergency landing southwest of Wears Valley. All four crew members were safe, and no injuries were reported. The aircraft incurred minor damage upon landing.

Track Tennessee wildfires

In light of Smokies fire in Wears Valley, track wildfires in Tennessee with this map.

Mountain Tough nonprofit reactivated

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said Thursday morning a nonprofit founded to distribute aid to victims of the 2016 Sevier County wildfires has been reactivated. The Mountain Tough nonprofit was shut down in 2018.

Fire is only 5% contained

A Thursday morning press conference provided updates on the fire, which is only 5% contained. Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters told reporters officials have no reports of deaths or missing people.

The Hatcher Mountain Fire has impacted 100 structures and 3,700 acres, not including spot fires across the county. Five firefighting vehicles have been damaged.

Although the fire approached Pigeon Forge, Waters said, it did not reach city limits.

Officials have not determined a cause, and evacuations are still in place.

Sevier County has created a dynamic map of the current fire evacuation area that can be found on the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency Facebook page at facebook.com/SevierCoEMA. Users can type their address in the window to see if they are within the evacuation area.

Overnight rainfall not much help

Overnight rainfall did little to compete with gusty winds on the Hatcher Mountain Road/Indigo Lane Fire that erupted Wednesday in the popular Great Smoky Mountains retreat.

Firefighters continued to work through the night patrolling the perimeter of the fire and protecting structures, said Brook Smith, spokesperson for the Tennessee Division of Forestry.

"We were mitigating any hot spots, we didn't lose any more structures," Smith said Thursday morning. "The rain has helped. This is not a wind-driven event any more."

Smith said leaf litter, which is the main source of fire fuel, will dry out as the weather clears and the fire could pick up again. But fire officials do not expect any new big pushes from the wildfire, he said.

"It should be manageable," Smith said. "Way different from yesterday."

Emergency shelters set up

Several emergency shelters were opened for displaced homeowners and tourists. More than 122 people stayed in the shelter overnight Wednesday at the Pigeon Forge Community Center, said Sharon Hudson, executive director of the Eastern Tennessee chapter of the American Red Cross.

Fire spread with dangerous winds

Dozens of people gathered Wednesday afternoon on Highway 321 near Hatcher Mountain Road, anxiously assessing the status of a fire that erupted in the Wears Valley community.

Two helicopters moved overhead to dump water near several burning homes on the hillside after high winds and dry conditions sparked a brush fire and prompted an evacuation order for the area around Hatcher Mountain Road and Indigo Lane.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: East Tennessee wildfires: Crews battle Smokies fires in Wears Valley