A fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has grown to approximately 500 acres in size overnight because of strong, 20 mph winds, and has forced the closures of several roads and trails in the park.
The Chimney 2 fire, which has been burning since November 23, is affecting the Chimney Tops and Bullhead Ridge area. Monday morning, park officials have closed Newfound Gap Road, Cherokee Orchard Road, Elkmont Road, and several trails due to the fire.
Heavy smoke from the fire is visible in Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, and there are reports of ash falling from the sky. The smoke is so bad in some areas that Sevier County School officials moved kids from Pi Beta Phi Elementary to the Rocky Top Athletic Facility at 12:30 p.m.
One seventh grader said it was tough to breathe as they left the school.
"We were about to be evacuated, and that's when we all went into the hallways and it was just so bad that you can smell the smoke. It was like there was a fire in the bottom half of our school. it was that bad, there was so much smoke," said Ashton Huddleston. "Everybody was coughing and covering their faces, and when we finally went outside, that's when it was horrible."
"This is my 29th year as superintendent of the schools, and I've never quite experienced anything quite like this today and I've experienced a lot of things in my tenure," said Jack Parton.
He said no decision has been made yet about school on Tuesday.
"We're going to watch it very very closely. Hopefully the rain will come in today like everyone is hoping it will and it will take care of itself, but we'll be making the decision either later this afternoon or first thing in the morning," said Parton.
Ober Gatlinburg will be closing early because of the smoke.
GALLERY: Chimney 2 fire
Fire crews are working to suppress the fire for public safety and to protect park facilities like the Chimneys picnic area.
The fire is currently moving northeast, burning primarily along the ground layer through duff and leaf litter. Gusting winds have caused the fire to spot across the ridges in the Chimney Tops and Bullhead Ridge areas.
On Sunday, three helicopters dropped water on the area to help control the fire in the extremely steep, rough terrain. More ground firefighters have been requested to help out on Monday because of the expected high winds.
It appears that the fire was human caused and is under investigation. If anyone has any information, they are asked to call the park’s Tip Line at 865-436-1580.
Another fire was reported just after 11:30 a.m. Monday just 150 yards behind the Twin Creeks Picnic Pavilion off Cherokee Orchard Road. It's not known yet if this is a separate fire or if it's an offshoot of the Chimney fire. National Park Service firefighters and the Gatlinburg Fire Department have responded to the area, and the Tennessee Division of Forestry is also responding to the area to stage equipment for use as needed.
Backcountry areas are unsafe for travel and the following trails and backcountry campsites are currently closed until further notice: Chimney Tops, Road Prong, Huskey Gap, Sugarland Mountain, Rough Creek, Little River, Cucumber Gap, Jakes Creek, Miry Ridge, Goshen Prong, Old Sugarlands, Bullhead, Rainbow Falls, Alum Cave, Brushy Mountain, Trillium Gap, Baskins Creek, Porters Creek, and Grapeyard Ridge trails.
Closed Backcountry Campsites include 21, 23, 24, 26, 27, 30, 31, 32, Mt. Le Conte shelter, and Mt. Collins shelter.