Storms take aim at large wildfires in South

Fire erupts on both side of Highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. In Gatlinburg, smoke and fire caused the mandatory evacuation of downtown and surrounding areas, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. (Jessica Tezak/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Fire erupts on both side of Highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. In Gatlinburg, smoke and fire caused the mandatory evacuation of downtown and surrounding areas, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. (Jessica Tezak/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

ATLANTA (AP) — As a strong storm system approached some of the largest wildfires burning in the South, the rain signaled new hope for firefighters working to extinguish the blazes.

But the storms also brought high winds, which toppled dead trees and could pose a threat to firefighters, authorities said. Experts predicted that rains Tuesday from one storm system would not be enough to end the relentless drought that’s spread across several states and provided fuel for the fires.

The storms early Tuesday 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.

Thick smoke from area forest fires looms in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. Gatlinburg officials say several areas are being evacuated as a result of fires in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Thick smoke from area forest fires looms in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. Gatlinburg officials say several areas are being evacuated as a result of fires in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, emergency officials said a wildfire had set 30 structures ablaze, including a 16-story hotel, and was at the edge of the Dollywood theme park.

Mandatory evacuations were underway for areas in and around Gatlinburg, including the south part of Pigeon Forge, where Dolly Parton’s theme park is, Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Dean Flener said in a news release Monday night. TV news broadcasts showed residents streaming out of town just as rain started to wet roads.

Thick smoke from area forest fires looms in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. Gatlinburg officials say several areas are being evacuated as a result of fires in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Thick smoke from area forest fires looms in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. Gatlinburg officials say several areas are being evacuated as a result of fires in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

Workers at an aquarium evacuated because of wildfires around Gatlinburg 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 Monday. 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 U.S. Forest Service.

Thick smoke from area forest fires looms as people walk in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. Gatlinburg officials say several areas are being evacuated as a result of fires in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Thick smoke from area forest fires looms as people walk in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. Gatlinburg officials say several areas are being evacuated as a result of fires in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Brianna Paciorka/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)

The projected rainfall amounts “really lines up with where we need it,” Martin said Monday. “We’re all knocking on wood.”

After weeks of punishing drought, any rain that falls should be soaked up quickly, forecasters said. It will provide some relief but won’t end the drought — or the fire threat, they said.

Drought conditions will likely persist, authorities said. The problem is that rainfall amounts have been 10 to 15 inches below normal during the past three months in many parts of the South, authorities said.

“I think we racked up deficits that are going to be too much to overcome with just one storm system,” said Mark Svoboda, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“I would say it’s way too early to say ‘Yes, this drought is over,'” Svoboda said. “Does it put a dent in it? Yes, but we have a long ways to go.”

A utility pole lies across a street in north Greenwood, Miss., after it was knocked down by during a thunderstorm Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. The city also suffered power outages, additional downed trees and flash flooding. (Bob Darden/The Commonwealth via AP)
A utility pole lies across a street in north Greenwood, Miss., after it was knocked down by during a thunderstorm Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. The city also suffered power outages, additional downed trees and flash flooding. (Bob Darden/The Commonwealth via AP)

The rain also brings danger because strong winds at the leading edge of the storms can topple trees and limbs that can kill and injure firefighters, he said.

In Mississippi, trees were reported downed in nearly 20 counties across the state. Sustained winds of 30 to 40 mph with gusts of more than 50 mph were reported and more than 2 inches of rain fell in some areas.

Power outages peaked at more than 23,000 statewide in Mississippi. Powerlines downed by winds sparked grass fires in four counties, said Greg Flynn, a spokesman for the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

FILE- In this Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, file photo, Lake Purdy which has receded several feet due to drought, leaves dry, cracked ground where lake water should use to be, in Birmingham, Ala. Though water shortages have yet to drastically change most people's lifestyles, southerners are beginning to realize that they'll need to save their drinking supplies with no end in sight to an eight-month drought. Already, watering lawns and washing cars is restricted in some parts of the South, and more severe water limits loom if long-range forecasts of below-normal rain hold true through the rest of 2016. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)
FILE- In this Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, file photo, Lake Purdy which has receded several feet due to drought, leaves dry, cracked ground where lake water should use to be, in Birmingham, Ala. Though water shortages have yet to drastically change most people’s lifestyles, southerners are beginning to realize that they’ll need to save their drinking supplies with no end in sight to an eight-month drought. Already, watering lawns and washing cars is restricted in some parts of the South, and more severe water limits loom if long-range forecasts of below-normal rain hold true through the rest of 2016. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

The storms moved across Alabama on Monday night and fell on Georgia during the overnight hours. High wind warnings were issued for mountainous areas in northern parts of Georgia.

In South Carolina, the stormy forecast was giving hope to firefighters battling a blaze in the northwest corner of the state. The South Carolina Forestry Commission hopes to contain the Pinnacle Mountain fire by the middle of next week.

More rain was expected Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

___

Fuller reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writers Jeff Amy in Jackson, Mississippi; Beth Campbell in Louisville, Kentucky; and Jack Jones in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

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