Gatlinburg ablaze as winds fan Smoky Mountains wildfires

Emergency officials in Tennessee said late Monday that spreading wildfires have set 30 structures ablaze in Gatlinburg, including a 16-story hotel, and that flames are at the edge of the Dollywood theme park.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for areas in and around Gatlinburg, including the south part of Pigeon Forge, where Dolly Parton’s theme park is located, according to Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Dean Flener.

Flener said strong afternoon wind gusts fanned the fires, even as the first significant rainfall in more than 50 days approached the drought-stricken mountains.

Officials in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ordered the temporary closure of U.S. 441 between Cherokee and Gatlinburg, not far from Clingmans Dome, because of heavy smoke and the danger of falling trees from the fire, estimated at 500 acres and growing.

That is also the area where the Appalachian Trail crosses at Newfound Gap.

In all, 18 wildfires were considered active in Western North Carolina on Monday, all mostly contained.

Gusty winds over 20 mph signaled the leading edge of a low-pressure system being welcomed into the parched region. Two inches of rain and possibly more are expected to fall this week, breaking a record drought in the highlands.

Near Lake Lure and Chimney Rock, crews continue to snuff out hot spots on a fire that consumed more than 1,700 acres since Nov. 5 and caused the evacuation of Chimney Rock village. At its height, more than 900 firefighters battled the so-called Party Rock fire, drawn from across North Carolina and 24 other states, including Florida and Alaska.

Rain was expected to begin soaking the region Monday night and was forecast to continue into Wednesday.

The Associated Press contributed.

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs