SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. (WATE/AP) – The death toll has risen to 13 in the East Tennessee wildfires, officials said on Friday morning.
Twelve people died in the fire and a thirteenth person died from a heart attack while trying to flee the fires.
Authorities on Friday released the names of some of the deceased-
- John Tegler, 71 (Canada)
- Janet Tegler, 70 (Canada)
- John Summers, 61 (Memphis)
- Janet Peso Summers (Memphis)
- Mae Vance (vacationer – died from heart attack)
Officials say they have developed a number of leads that have resulted in missing persons being found. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has established a hotline to coordinate reports of missing persons in the areas affected by the recent wildfires in East Tennessee.
Those wishing to report missing individuals believed to be in the affected areas of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Wears Valley may contact 1-800-TBI-FIND.
“Since our hotline has been established yesterday morning, we received 100 phone calls,” said an agent from TBI in a statement. “We are following up on approximately 70 leads.”
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said 90 percent of the areas have been soft-searched by Friday. “This does not mean that the search is complete. We will continue to search everywhere we can and we are working with the TBI for areas we need to search,” said Waters.
85 people have been treated for fire-related injuries.
Waters said there are currently 1,000 structures damaged in Sevier County.
Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said this is the largest fire in 100 years in Tennessee.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is working to help determine the origin of the fire.
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.