Deaths from Tenn. blazes into the double digits
GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Crews discovered three more bodies as they searched the rubble of wildfires that torched hundreds of homes and businesses near the Great Smoky Mountains, bringing the death toll to 10, officials said Thursday.
Authorities set up a hotline for people to report missing friends and relatives, and after following up on dozens of leads, they said many of those people had been accounted for. They did not say whether they believe anyone else is still missing.
Search-and-rescue missions continued until dark, but Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said that since it had been three days since the fires, “we have to come to a realization that the potential is great that it could be more of a recovery than a rescue.”
Nearly 24 hours of rain on Wednesday helped dampen the wildfires, but fire officials struck a cautious tone, saying people shouldn’t have a false sense of security because months of drought have left the ground bone dry and the wildfires can rekindle.
A wildfire, likely started by a person, spread Monday from the Great Smoky Mountains into the tourist city of Gatlinburg when hurricane-force winds toppled trees and power lines, blowing embers in all directions. More than 14,000 residents and visitors in Gatlinburg were forced to evacuate and the city has been shuttered ever since.
“We had trees going down everywhere, power lines, all those power lines were just like lighting a match because of the extreme drought conditions. So we went from nothing to over 20 plus structure fires in a matter of minutes. And that grew and that grew and that grew,” Miller said.
At least 700 buildings in the county have been damaged.
“Gatlinburg is the people, that’s what Gatlinburg is. It’s not the buildings, it’s not the stuff in the buildings,” Mayor Mike Werner said. “We’re gonna be back better than ever. Just be patient.”
Werner has spent the better part of three days standing in front of TV cameras saying “everything is going to be OK,” all while he lost the home he built himself along with all seven buildings of the condominium business he owned.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash has said the fires were “likely to be human-caused” but he has refused to elaborate, saying only that the investigation continues.
About 10,000 acres, or 15 square miles, have burned inside the country’s most visited national park. Another 6,000 acres have been torched outside of the park.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said authorities have made “significant progress in the search and clearing” of the rubble.