Raging wildfires fueled by high winds forced the evacuation of thousands of people and damaged or burned hundreds of homes and other buildings in a popular vacation resort town on the border of the Smoky Mountains National Park as National Guard troops arrived early today to help overwhelmed firefighters battle the blaze. The winds toppled dead trees and fanned flames eating their way across forest floors dried out by a relentless drought that has spread across several Southern states and provided fuel for the fires in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina. As a strong storm system approached some of the largest wildfires, the rain signaled new hope for firefighters working to extinguish the blazes. But experts predicted rains today from one storm system would not be enough to end the drought. The storms appeared to be taking aim at the nearly 28,000-acre Rough Ridge Fire in north Georgia and the nearly 25,000-acre Rock Mountain Fire that began in Georgia and then spread deep into North Carolina. In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, officials said hundreds of homes and other buildings, including a 16-story hotel, were damaged or destroyed by flames. Emergency officials ordered evacuations in downtown Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and in other areas of Sevier County near the Smoky Mountains while crews continue to battle the blaze, which also had crept to the edge of the Dollywood theme park. No deaths have been reported, though several people were injured, emergency officials said. Officials say there are about 1,200 people sheltering at the Gatlinburg Community Center and the Rocky Top Sports Park.
Several other shelters have opened to house those forced from their homes. TV broadcasts showed residents streaming out of town just as rain started to wet roads. Workers at an aquarium evacuated because of the wildfires were concerned about the thousands of animals housed there. Ryan DeSears, general manager of Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies, told WBIR-TV the building was still standing and all workers had been evacuated late yesterday. However, he said workers were anxious to return to check on the well-being of the 10,518 animals. The rain forecast "puts the bull's-eye of the greatest amounts right at the bull's-eye of where we've been having our greatest activity," said Dave Martin, deputy director of operations for fire and aviation management with the southern region of the US Forest Service. The projected rainfall amounts "really lines up with where we need it," Martin said yesterday. "We're all knocking on wood.
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