Gatlinburg fire believed to be ‘human caused’; Death toll rises to 13

Sidney James Mountain Lodge in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (Credit: Ashley Biggens via WATE ReportIt!)

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — The Latest on the wildfires in eastern Tennessee (all times local):

5 p.m.

Officials are asking for the public’s help to figure out who started a wildfire that has killed 13 people and ravaged about 1,000 buildings around Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

At a news conference Friday, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash asked people who hiked the Chimney Tops Trail on Nov. 23, or know someone who did, to contact the investigative team. You can call at 1-888-653-0009, send an email to the Tip Line at nps_isb@nps.gov; or send a tweet to @SpecialAgentNPS. You can also click here to fill out an online tip form.

The National Park Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the cause of the fire in the park, which they believe was man-made.

12:30 p.m.

Officials are defending their response to wildfires in Tennessee that killed 13 people.

In response to reporters’ questions Friday, John Matthews with the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency said a text alert telling people to evacuate went out around 9 p.m. Monday to anyone with a mobile device connected to a cell tower in the city. By that time, wildfires were raging in the area.

Matthews said some people did not receive the message due to power outages and loss of cellphone reception.

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said they will completely evaluate that system and improve it.

Asked about the overall response, Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said they didn’t drop the ball. He said the appropriate amount of resources was put in the area, including four helicopters dropping water Sunday. He said the wind came in earlier than forecast.

Asked about why they didn’t evacuate earlier, Waters said the reporter didn’t know the area and he wasn’t getting into “Monday morning quarterbacking.”

Residents and business owners in Gatlinburg got their first look at the wildfire destruction on Friday, and many walked around the once-bustling tourist city in a daze, sobbing.

They hugged each other and promised that they would stay in touch.

“We love it up here so much,” said Gary Moore, his voice trembling. “We lost everything. But we’re alive, thank goodness. Our neighbors are alive, most of them. And we’re just so thankful for that.”

As people were let into the city, a county mayor raised the death toll to 13 and said the number of damaged buildings now approached 1,000. Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters also defended the response to the wildfires that spread rapidly Monday, saying it was not the time for “Monday morning quarterbacking.” He promised a full review at a later date.

John Matthews of the Sevier County Emergency Management Agency said a text alert telling people to evacuate went out around 9 p.m. Monday. But by that time, wildfires were raging in the area.

Matthews said some people did not receive the message due to power outages and loss of cellphone reception.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials said the right amount of resources was put in the area, including four helicopters dropping water Sunday. They said the high winds came in earlier and more forceful than expected, and that 1,000 firefighters and engines lined up end to end couldn’t have stopped it.

Local officials, bowing to pressure from frustrated property owners, allowed people back into most parts of the city Friday. Residents passed through a checkpoint and showed proof of ownership or residency.

“This is all that’s left of our house,” said Tammy Sherrod, standing with her husband in front of the rubble. “We had five minutes to get off this mountain. We got off with the clothes on our back. We got off with a few pictures.”

She found a coaster in the rubble that her 27-year-old daughter had made as a child. Half of it was brightly colored and the other half was charred black. It still had her name, Brianna, written on the bottom in black marker.

The dead included a Memphis couple who was separated from their three sons during the wildfires. The sons – Jared, Wesley and Branson Summers – learned that their parents had died as they were recovering in the hospital.

“The boys, swaddled in bandages with tubes hanging out and machines attached, were allowed to break quarantine, and were together in the same room, briefly, when I confirmed their parents’ death,” their uncle Jim Summers wrote on a Facebook page set up for the family. Their injuries “pale in comparison with their grief.”

Other fatalities included a couple from Canada, 71-year-old Jon Tegler and 70-year-old Marilyn Tegler, and May Vance, who died of a heart attack after she was exposed to smoke. Officials said at a news conference that she was vacationing in Gatlinburg, but an obituary posted online said she was from the area.

The names of the other victims have not been released.

In communities near Gatlinburg, there were signs of normalcy. In Pigeon Forge, the Comedy House rented an electronic billboard message that said it was open, and Dollywood, the amusement park named after Dolly Parton, reopened Friday afternoon after it was spared any damage.

The Associated Press was allowed into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited national park in the country – on Thursday. Soot, ash and blackened trees covered the forest floor, and the gorgeous vistas of tree-topped mountain ranges were scarred by large areas of blackened soil and trees. Small plumes of smoke smoldered from hot spots.

Deputy Park Superintendent Jordan Clayton said the initial fire started Nov. 23 near the end of a popular hiking trail.

“Whether it was purposefully set or whether it was a careless act that was not intended to cause a fire, that we don’t know,” Clayton said. “The origin of the fire is under investigation.”