Roads and campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park were closed to visitors ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday as hurricane-force winds swept through eastern Tennessee, park administrators said.
Firefighters in the small mountain hamlet of Townsend began voluntary evacuations at about 3 a.m. on Tuesday after gusting winds fueled a wildfire on Rich Mountain Gap around a popular hiking trail within the park, about five miles outside town.
A “red flag” warning was also in effect for the Smokies, meaning that 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 by noon on Tuesday, according to Emily Davis, a park spokeswoman, and the evacuation order in Townsend had been lifted. Weather conditions had improved slightly, enough for crews to begin assessing any damage to roads and campgrounds that the National Park Service closed on Monday, she said.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a roughly 520,000-acre piece of wilderness, straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The landscape is dominated by lush forests and year-round wildflowers.
The week of Thanksgiving 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, park data shows.
“Employee and visitor safety is our only priority,” the park superintendent 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 a portion of U.S. 441, a scenic, two-lane highway that snakes through the Smoky Mountains from Gatlinburg, Tenn., to Cherokee, N.C.
A National Weather Service advisory for Gatlinburg, just outside the park, reported sustained winds of 40 miles per hour, with gusts of up to 85 m.p.h. The advisory predicted that the high winds would “blow down trees and power lines” and cause “widespread power outages.”
Temporary closures because of wind, fire and floods have become common within the national park system as climate change presents more extreme weather conditions.
High wind alerts have risen sharply at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in recent years, from 22 alerts in 2006 to 48 alerts in 2022, according to the National Park Service.