Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Public safety

7 people killed, 700 homes and businesses damaged or destroyed in Tennessee wildfires (w/video)

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Seven people are now confirmed dead in the wildfires that ravaged Tennessee's Sevier County this week, authorities said Wednesday.

Early assessments indicate wildfire has damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes and businesses across the county this week, county Mayor Larry Waters said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. Fire officials said that number includes about 300 buildings inside the Gatlinburg city limits.

The blaze erupted as flames whipped by high-speed winds raged through town Monday night into Tuesday morning and displaced more than 14,000 residents in an inferno witnesses called unlike any in the past century. It's the latest destruction by wildfires that officials estimate have consumed more than 15,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains.

A firefighter was hurt fighting the blaze, Waters said. His injuries appeared to be minor. The search continues for others who might have been killed or injured but not discovered due to blocked roads and power outages.

At least three people trapped because of fire damage had been rescued by Wednesday afternoon.

Authorities have not released the identities of those killed. Three bodies were found in North Chalet Village, and a fourth was found in a burned-out hotel off U.S. 321.

Three more had been found by Wednesday afternoon — all three in a home on Campbell Lead Road, authorities said.

"We are trying to get into every area," Waters said. "Those efforts will continue today."

Eight new fires erupted Tuesday into Wednesday, Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said. Most were brush fires, but one was a vacant home that caught fire.

The heavy rains that followed the fires have created "new challenges" as firefighters continue to check hot spots and assess damages.

"There's no longer that foliage holding everything together, so we're experiencing small rockslides and mudslides as we have to go back into areas we previously thought were accessible," the chief said.

The blaze apparently began when embers from a wildfire on nearby Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park wafted into the Twin Creeks and Mynatt Park areas of town Monday night as the already-heavy winds doubled in speed, the fire chief said. The resulting flames swept through Gatlinburg in less than a quarter-hour, fanned by winds at speeds that approached 90 mph.

The cause of the Chimney Tops fire remains under investigation, but the wildfire "appears to be human-caused," park Superintendent Cassius Cash said.

At least 53 people have been treated at LeConte Medical Center for fire-related injuries, authorities said. Three suffered burns serious enough for treatment at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

Roads into Gatlinburg remained closed Wednesday, and authorities offered no indication of when any residents might be able to return home.

More than 14,000 people have been forced to leave Gatlinburg alone, and about 500 from Pigeon Forge, officials estimated. More than 2,000 people had been taken to emergency shelters.

Ken Lewis, manager of Red Cross shelter at Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg, said Wednesday morning that there were 200 people at the shelter, down from a peak of 700 on Tuesday.

Lewis said a lot of evacuees have been able to connect with friends and family and find a place to stay.

Inside the shelter there are stacks of food, bottled water, personal hygiene items and diapers. Local restaurants have donated hot prepared food as well.

The shelter also has an abundance of pet food and pet supplies.

"We had trucks and supplies coming in all day long," Lewis said.

He said right now it's to the point that the shelter has too much and they're trying to channel some of the items back into the community.

"If people want to help, we've got everything we need right now," Lewis said.

Michelle Hankes, spokeswoman for the Knoxville chapter of the American Red Cross, said the agency has received more donations of food, clothes and other necessities at this point than volunteers and staff can handle.

"We're going to ask everyone to take a pause," she said. "We need to make sure we can use these resources as they're intended."

News of the fires has brought condolences and offers of support pouring into East Tennessee from around the country, including from President-elect Donald Trump and former Vice President Al Gore, a onetime Tennessee senator.

©2016 Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)

     
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