GATLINBURG, Tenn. - A calamitous and deadly wildfire engulfed two tourist towns near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with much of the surrounding timberlands, destroying more than 150 homes and businesses, displacing thousands of residents and visitors and shutting down one of the nation's most popular natural attractions.

The fire has killed at least three people and injured at least 14 others, officials said Tuesday.

Search and rescue efforts were underway throughout Sevier County as dusk arrived in the charred, smoke-choked mountains, but some areas remained unreachable, authorities said late Tuesday afternoon.

The blaze forced more than 14,000 people to flee the area and left "in excess of 150" buildings in ruin, officials said.

"People were basically running for their lives," Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said at a news conference.

The "unprecedented" fire - which started on the Chimney Tops mountain, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Smokies - was still burning Tuesday afternoon, emergency officials said. Strong winds and dry ground had carried the flames into the resort cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, moving too fast and too far to contain.

"This is a fire for the history books," said Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller.

Miller said that the Chimney Tops fire, which was reported Sunday, started to rage Monday night when winds climbed to 87 mph, carrying away fiery embers and knocking trees and power lines to the ground.

Officials at Great Smoky Mountains National Park said Tuesday morning that the extensive fire and fallen trees had forced the temporary closure of the most-visited national park in America. In the surrounding towns, the sky was smoky and the ground wet with rain. Officials said the wind had died down, but a handful of buildings continued to burn.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said that the state was sending resources, including the National Guard, to help those who had been affected by the fires.

"We will do all we can to help these communities rebuild & recover," Haslam wrote on Twitter.

Residents evacuated the area as trees caught fire on the low slope of the hills and mountains on either side of the road - the flames' orange tendrils licking at the asphalt and black smoke obscuring the sky.

"Fire was coming over the mountains, and the smoke was so bad we could barely breathe as we were trying to pack up," Mike Gill, who was evacuating with his wife, Betty, told NBC News.

Katie Brittain, manager at the Dress Barn in Pigeon Forge, told the Washington Post that when she arrived at work Monday, the sky was brown and ash was raining down. Despite the ominous conditions, store employees weren't sure whether they were supposed to evacuate from their location, not far from Dolly Parton's theme park, Dollywood.

She said employees stayed put but grew increasingly nervous as the smoke thickened and the wind increased that afternoon. By the end of the day, she said, the inside of the store "smelled like a bonfire."

"The smell was really, really bad," she said. "My eyes were burning, and our throats were getting scratchy."

"Everyone was kind of in a state of disbelief," she added.

At least 14 people were transported from Gatlinburg for treatment, mostly for injuries that were not life-threatening, officials said Tuesday.

In Gatlinburg, flames began engulfing private structures, including the 300-room Park Vista hotel. Inside the hotel, dozens of guests were trapped Monday by a wall of flames outside.

Logan Baker told NBC affiliate WBIR that the firefighters initially told guests that they would be safe inside the building, but a short time later, "they saw flames coming down the hill." By the time guests had packed their cars with luggage, however, it was too late to escape, Baker told the station, noting that the only road out was covered in flames.

"When you opened the doors, it just blew you back," he said. "Embers started flying into the hotel."

Baker told WBIR he helped bring people back inside the hotel; once inside, firefighters told them to remain in the lobby while they fought the fire outside.

Video taken from inside the hotel lobby shows massive flames licking at the windows. Guests can be overheard discussing a plan to "dive into the pool."

"Well, they locked the pool up," one woman said.

Carol Lilleaas, a Gatlinburg resident, said she fled her home with only her animals and her husband's ashes. She does not know what has happened to her house or what she might be returning to.

"It will be there, or it won't," she said.

The fire also forced employees at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies to evacuate, leaving behind more than 10,500 animals, Ripley Attractions general manager Ryan DeSear told WBIR.

DeSear said the blaze was about 50 yards from the building when employees had to evacuate.

Late Tuesday morning, Ripley announced that the animals were "safe and under care."