Seven people now have been confirmed dead in the wildfires that swept Gatlinburg this week, authorities said Wednesday.
Early assessments indicate more than 700 homes and businesses have been damaged or destroyed across Sevier County as flames whipped in high winds raged through town Monday night into Tuesday morning and displaced more than 14,000 residents in Gatlinburg alone, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said. Fire officials said that number includes about 300 buildings inside Gatlinburg city limits.
Witnesses called the inferno unlike any in the past century, and officials estimate that the wildfires have consumed more than 15,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains.
A firefighter also received minor injuries in fighting the blaze, Waters said. The search continues for others who might have been killed or injured but not discovered because of blocked roads and power outages.
“We are trying to get into every area,” Waters said. At least three people trapped because of fire damage had been rescued by Wednesday afternoon.
The names of those killed have not been released. Three bodies were found Tuesday in Chalet Village North, an area of vacation rental cabins, another three were found Wednesday afternoon in a home on Campbell Lead Road, and one was discovered in a burned-out hotel off U.S. 321.
Eight new fires erupted Tuesday into Wednesday, mostly brush fires, but one was a vacant home, Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said. The heavy rains that followed the fires have created new challenges as firefighters continue to check hot spots and assess damages.
“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 Mountain National Park wafted Monday night into the Twin Creek and Mynatt Park areas of Gatlinburg as already heavy winds doubled in speed, Miller said. The resulting flames swept through Gatlinburg in less than 15 minutes, fanned by winds at speeds that approached 90 mph.
At least 45 people have suffered fire-related injuries, three serious enough to be sent to the burn unit at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville.
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SOURCE: USA Today; Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel, Hayes Hickman