GATLINBURG, NC – The death toll has risen to seven after wildfires swept through Sevier County in the Great Smoky Mountains in eastern Tennessee.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters also said Wednesday morning that nearly four dozen people had been injured in the fires.
The wildfires destroyed more than 150 buildings. Heavy rain fell early Wednesday, which is helping put out some of the wildfires, but officials say more than 200 firefighters are still out battling flames and hotspots.
During wildfires Monday night, many buildings in Gatlinburg were burned to their foundation. Hotel fire alarms eerily echoed through empty streets lined with burned out cars Tuesday evening.
Wildfires have been burning for several weeks across the drought-stricken South. But Monday marked the first time homes and businesses were destroyed on a large scale.
Gatlinburg, a city that opens up to 11 million visitors annually, is facing a new reality. But Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his home, says his town will pull together and recover.
Fanned by hurricane-force winds, the flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the Tennessee theme park named after country music legend and local hero Dolly Parton. But the attraction was spared any significant damage.
The fires spread quickly on Monday night, when winds topping 87 mph whipped up the flames, catching residents and tourists in the Gatlinburg 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.
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 planned for Tuesday night.
BOIL WATER ADVISORY
The city of Gatlinburg is asking customers to conserve the use of water because of the high demand for firefighters. The water quality will be “compromised” and customers are asked to boil water before drinking or food preparation.
Strain water through clean cloth to remove any sediment.
Heat water to boiling for at least one minute.
Sevier County and Cocke County schools are closed Wednesday.
Cocke County Schools will be on a regular schedule Thursday and Friday except for Smoky Mountain Elementary. That school will be closed for the remainder of the week.
Schools in Sevier County will be back open Thursday except for Pi Beta Phi Elementary and Gatlinburg Pittman High School. Faculties should still report on regular schedule. Buses in Pigeon Forge will run as conditions permit.
RAIN HELPS FIREFIGHT
Firefighting officials reported Wednesday that the rains are helping to contain the fires that began in recent weeks in Clay, Graham, McDowell and Macon counties.
A wind advisory is in effect in western areas of the state through Wednesday evening with likely gusts up to 45 mph. Authorities say rain and high humidity should prevent winds from spreading the fires, but trees weakened by fire and rain will be blown onto roadways and trails.
At least four people have died in wildfires around Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Monetary donations are requested to support both short-term and long-term recovery efforts.
Donations to the Gatlinburg Relief Fund can be made at any SmartBank or mailed to PO Box 1910, Pigeon Forge, TN, 37868.
In order to donate to American Red Cross of East Tennessee, donate online at redcross.org where you can specify the local Red Cross. Checks can be sent to the Red Cross office at 6921 Middlebrook Pike, Knoxville, TN 37909. Also, $10 donations can be made by texting REDCROSS to 90999. Donations made via text will be on the supporter’s phone bill.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is creating a hotline to help families find their missing loved ones in East Tennessee.
People can report missing individuals that they believe are in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge or Wears Valley. The hotline is 1-800-TBI-FIND. Giving as much identifying information (names, phone numbers, vehicle information, last known place) will be helpful.
TBI asks people to not call the hotline to find out about personal properties. TBI will give the missing person information immediate to law enforcement in the area.