Death toll rises to seven; wildfires deemed manmade

- Thunderstorms dumped much-needed rain on eastern Tennessee overnight as thousands of people waited anxiously for news about their homes after wildfires tore through this resort community, killing at least seven people.

Officials confirmed four new fatalities Wednesday, saying one of the victims was found at a motel. A mandatory evacuation order remained in place for Gatlinburg as firefighters monitored a few remaining hot spots in the area near the Great Smoky Mountains.

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said Wednesday that officials believe more than 400 buildings were damaged.

There were severe thunderstorm warnings for the area, ahead of a line of storms moving across the Southeast. Those storms had already spawned possible tornadoes in parts of Alabama and Tennessee, killing five people and injuring more than a dozen. Officials in the Gatlinburg area were worried about mudslides, rock slides and high winds knocking trees onto power lines, perhaps creating new fires.

The National Weather Service said the region had received about an inch of rain and the forecast calls for thunderstorms to pick up in the afternoon and taper off by early evening.

"The rain is going to help with the suppression of some of the active fires. The rain may help prevent some of the further brush fires. But I also want to say that unless that rain penetrates deep enough into that duff, into that leaf clutter, then those hotspots can still arise," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said.

The fire picked its spots as it tore through the Gatlinburg area: It destroyed at least 150 buildings but left others intact.

By Tuesday evening, almost nothing remained of the Castle, perhaps the largest and most iconic home overlooking Gatlinburg. Entire churches disappeared. So did the Cupid's Chapel of Love wedding venue, though its managers promised to move scheduled weddings to a sister venue, Chapel at the Park.

Officials surveying early damage said the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa, with more than 100 buildings, is likely entirely gone.

Fanned by hurricane-force winds Monday night, the flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge named after country music legend and local hero Dolly Parton. The park was spared any significant damage and will reopen Friday.

Much remained uncertain for a region that serves as the gateway into the Great Smoky Mountains, the country's most visited national park. Search and rescue efforts continued in areas that have been unreachable because of downed power lines and trees.

A somber reality set in for Gatlinburg, a city of about 4,000 residents that draws more than 11 million visitors a year. But even Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his home in the fire, remained steadfast that his city will recover.

"We're more concerned about everybody else. We're concerned about a lot of the families that may not have been insured," he said. "A lot of the families that don't know where to go or what's next. We want to give that positive message that everything, absolutely, is going to be OK."

Search and rescue efforts continued through the night in areas that had been unreachable because of downed power lines and trees. A somber reality set in for Gatlinburg, a city of just 3,944 residents that draws more than 11 million visitors a year. But even Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his home in the fire, remained steadfast that his city will recover.

"It's a devastating time for us and for Gatlinburg," Werner said at a news conference Tuesday. "As I said earlier this morning, we're strong. We're resilient. And we're going to make it. We're going to pull it together and continue to make Gatlinburg the premier resort that it is."

In all, more than 14,000 residents and tourists were forced to evacuate the tourist city in the mountains, where some hotspots persisted and a curfew was in effect overnight Tuesday.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who flew in to see the damage caused by a fire he called the largest in the state in the past 100 years, said he was struck by how some buildings were burned to the ground while others — including most of the downtown entertainment cluster — were untouched.

"It just could have been so much worse," he said.

The governor said work would begin quickly to repair the damage to what he called "a special place in the state of Tennessee."

The Gatlinburg area wildfires spread when winds blew trees onto power lines, sparking new fires and shooting embers over long distances. Hundreds of homes and other buildings, including a 16-story hotel, were damaged or destroyed.

The fires spread quickly Monday night, when winds topping 87 mph whipped up the flames, catching residents and tourists in the area by surprise. Police banged on front doors and told people to get out immediately. Some trekked 20 minutes to catch lifesaving rides on trolleys usually reserved for tours and wedding parties.

"There was fire everywhere. It was like we were in hell," said Linda Monholland, who was working at Park View Inn in Gatlinburg when she and five other people fled on foot. "Walking through hell, that's what it was. I can't believe it. I never want to see something like that again in my life, ever."

Workers at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies were forced to leave behind more than 10,000 fish and other animals.

"Our team of Marine Biologists and Life Support Experts inside the Aquarium are happy to report the animals are safe," the aquarium said on Twitter Tuesday. 

In Pigeon Forge, the American Eagle Foundation (AEF) placed 50 to 60 birds into travel kennels and moved them to various AEF staff members' homes. 

AEF said its facilities were untouched by the fires. 

"All of our birds have been relocated to safe spaces in individual kennels as a precautionary measure until fires are mitigated," AEF said on Facebook. 

At the Wednesday morning news briefing, Gatlinburg Mayor Werner told reporters, "We're going to be back." He encouraged anyone who is considering vacation or travel plans to visit Gatlinburg when it's safe as the best way to support the town and area.


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