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Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Wind-forced closures

Roads and campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park were closed to visitors ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday as hurricane-force winds blew across eastern Tennessee, park administrators said.

Firefighters in the small mountain hamlet of Townsend began voluntary evacuations around 3 a.m. Tuesday after gusty winds fueled a wildfire on Rich Mountain Gap around a popular hiking trail in the park, about eight kilometers from the city.

A “red flag” was also in effect for the Smokies, meaning low humidity and strong winds posed an increased risk of fire danger.

The wildfire on Rich Mountain, which quickly spread across six acres of forest, was 25 percent contained as of midday Tuesday, according to Emily Davis, a park spokeswoman, and the evacuation order to Townsend had been lifted. Weather conditions improved slightly, enough for crews to begin assessing damage to roads and campgrounds closed Monday by the National Park Service, she said.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a wilderness of approximately 520,000 acres, straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The landscape is dominated by lush forests and wildflowers all year round.

Thanksgiving week is a popular time for visitors, Ms. Davis said. About a tenth of the park’s 11.5 million visitors in 2022 came in November, according to park data.

“The safety of employees and visitors is our only priority,” park manager Cassius Cash said in a statement. “We understand these closures are an inconvenience, but we are trying to eliminate as much risk as possible during this dangerous weather event.”

The road closures include part of US 441, a two-lane scenic highway that winds through the Smoky Mountains from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to Cherokee, North Carolina.

A National Weather Service advisory for Gatlinburg, just outside the park, reported sustained winds of 40 miles per hour, with gusts up to 85 mph. The advisory predicted that high winds would “topple trees and power lines” and cause “widespread electricity.” breakdowns. »

Temporary closures due to wind, fire and flooding have become common across the national park system as climate change brings more extreme weather.

High wind alerts have increased sharply in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in recent years, from 22 alerts in 2006 to 48 alerts in 2022, according to the National Park Service.

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