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National

Tenn. Wildfire Forces Aquarium Staff To Evacuate; Animals Stay Behind

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee are being threatened by wildfires that have claimed at least three lives and destroyed homes and businesses. One city, Gatlinburg, is home to Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. Ten-thousand sea creatures from all over the world live there. And on Monday night, the staff was ordered to evacuate and leave the animals behind.

RYAN DESEAR: There was fires all over the city. The closest one was within feet of the aquarium, and we all went to bed fully expecting to lose the aquarium.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Ryan DeSear is the general manager there.

DESEAR: When you see a wall of fire coming at you, you can't do anything, you know? It's not in your hands at that point. And we were even willing to stay there beyond that, but unfortunately law enforcement said no.

GREENE: As you can imagine, it was a fitful night for the staff, praying the building and the generator would hold up. Many of the animals could only survive for 24 hours without proper attention.

INSKEEP: In the morning, there was a feeling of relief.

DESEAR: The parking deck behind us acted as a firewall and really stopped the fire dead in its track.

GREENE: The aquarium had been spared, and a skeleton staff got to return to work that morning.

DESEAR: We had our best people in there - a team of biologists and life support technicians working for the animals. And it ended up being fine.

INSKEEP: Wow. Recent rains bring hope that the fires will soon be extinguished.

GREENE: And the general manager, Ryan DeSear, says tourists hopefully can come back to visit the aquarium's colony of penguins and also Sally the sea turtle very soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.