GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — Crews discovered the remains of more people as they searched the rubble of wildfires that torched hundreds of homes and businesses near the Great Smoky Mountains, bringing the death toll to 11, 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 or may have died.
“I think it’s fair to say that the search is winding down,” Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said. “And hopefully we will not find any more.”
He said the searches would likely be completed Friday.
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 wildfires can rekindle.
The trouble began Monday when a wildfire, likely caused by a person, spread from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the tourist city of Gatlinburg as hurricane-force winds toppled trees and power lines, blowing embers in all directions.
“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,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said.
More than 14,000 residents and visitors in Gatlinburg were forced to evacuate, and the typically bustling tourist city has been shuttered ever since. 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.”
Starting Friday, homeowners, business owners, renters and lease holders will be allowed to go see most of their Gatlinburg properties, said City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle. The city is hoping to open main roads to the general public Wednesday.
There were other signs of recovery. Waters declared that Sevier County was “open for business.” In nearby Pigeon Forge, the Comedy House rented an electronic billboard message that said it was open for laughs, and a flyer at a hotel urged guests to check out the scenic Cades Cove loop. “Take a drive and remember what you love about the Smokies!” the flyer said.
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. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are helping investigate the cause.
About 10,000 acres, or 15 square miles, burned inside the country’s most visited national park. Another 6,000 acres were scorched outside of the park.
One of the victims was identified as Alice Hagler. Her son Lyle Wood said his mother and brother lived in a home at Chalet Village in Gatlinburg and she frantically called his brother Monday night because the house had caught fire. The call dropped as Wood’s brother raced up the fiery mountain trying to get to his mother. He didn’t make it in time.
“My mom was a very warm, loving, personable person. She never met a stranger. She would talk to anybody,” Wood said.
Authorities said they were still working to identify the dead and did not release any details about how they were killed.
Three brothers being treated at a Nashville hospital said they had not heard from their parents since they were separated while fleeing the fiery scene during their vacation.
A number of funds have been established to help victims of the wildfires, including one set up by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee and another by country music legend and native Dolly Parton.
The flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the theme park named after Parton, but the park was spared any significant damage and will reopen Friday.
About 240 people stayed overnight in shelters, including Mark Howard, who was flat on his back in the hospital with pneumonia when the wildfires started. He called 911 when he heard his house was consumed.
“I had no insurance. It’s a total loss,” the 57-year-old owner of a handyman business said.
Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press writers Rebecca Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kristin M. Hall in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, contributed to this report.