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Eastern Tennessee wildfire burns tourist cabins, other structures

By Tim Ghianni

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - A wind-blown wildfire has destroyed or damaged about 65 structures, many of them tourist cabins at a resort in eastern Tennessee, and forced 150 people from the area, but there were no reported injuries, officials said on Monday.

Authorities were called to a cabin fire on Sunday afternoon and the blaze had grown to 160 acres by Monday in and around Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a tourist destination near the North Carolina border and an entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Pigeon Forge is home to country entertainer Dolly Parton's theme park, Dollywood, where an unrelated brush fire on Saturday night was quickly contained, the park said on Monday. Dollywood is on the other side of the town from the forest fire.

Two Tennessee Army National Guard helicopters were lifting water from nearby lakes and dumping it on the wild fire Monday and two more were dispatched there mainly to look for more hot spots, National Guard spokesman Randy Harris said.

Firefighters from up to 30 departments in eastern Tennessee were working with state forestry officials to get the fire under control, Sevier County spokesman Perrin Anderson said.

Authorities said the fire was listed as contained but not yet under control.

A strong storm system rolling across Tennessee was pushing high winds and warm air over the Smoky Mountains, raising concerns that the fire could jump established lines, said Dean Flener, spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

"The concern now is the fire jumping a ridge line and it could threaten Pigeon Forge. If it does that, it's a whole new ball game," Flener said.

Flener said heavy rain from the storm system, which could help quell the fire, wasn't expected to reach the area until later on Monday.

Most of the damaged structures are tourist cabins.

About 56 cabins at Black Bear Ridge Resort have been damaged by the fire, said Debbie Perry, who works for the resort company, adding that the fire was ongoing and, "We're not allowed back on the property."

"There are a few permanent residences in there, but the majority are tourist cabin rental places," Anderson said of the structures that were destroyed or damaged.

The majority of the 150 people who voluntarily left the area were probably visitors, Anderson said.

The Red Cross has opened a shelter in the Pigeon Forge Community Center and also has a relief truck near the scene to aid the emergency workers.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

The fire in Tennessee follows a wind-blown wildfire in a canyon northwest of Denver that forced hundreds of Colorado residents from their homes last week. It signaled an early start to the wildfire season in that drought-stricken state, which last year had its worst fire year on record.

The blaze erupted on Friday about 75 miles northwest of Denver near the city of Fort Collins and Lory State Park, but no injuries were reported and no structures were lost.

(Editing by David Bailey and Steve Orlofsky)

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