The deadly wildfires that engulfed two popular tourist towns leading into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park left at least seven dead and hundreds of buildings damaged or destroyed, officials said Wednesday as the terrible toll of the Tennessee fires began to take focus.
At least 53 people were treated for injuries at hospitals, though their conditions were not known. The fires are estimated to have damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes and businesses — nearly half of them in the city of Gatlinburg.
Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said late Wednesday afternoon that the fire was “likely to be human-caused.”
Massive walls of flames spread down the mountains into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on Monday with shocking speed, said those who fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. Fires continued to burn throughout Sevier County on Tuesday, and multiple new blazes flared up overnight — most of them brush fires, officials said.
Rain “provided some relief” Wednesday, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said, and all wildfires in Gatlinburg were out by late afternoon, though some were still smoldering. Gatlinburg remained under an emergency evacuation order, with an overnight curfew in place, TEMA said.
Search-and-rescue efforts were ongoing Wednesday in the charred, smoke-choked mountains, but some areas throughout Sevier County remained unreachable, authorities said. The Red Cross launched a service to try to reunite those who were separated; the number of those missing is not clear.
First responders were also struggling with small mudslides and rock slides as the lush foliage that once held the ground in place had burned away. Park officials estimated that about 16,000 acres were burned by Wednesday afternoon.
“We’re going to be okay,” Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner reassured locals repeatedly throughout a news conference Wednesday.
Despite widespread chaos, officials said the previous 24-hours were not without some good news. Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said rescuers were able to free three people who became trapped in an elevator at Westgate Resort in Gatlinburg after it lost power during a fire.
The trapped occupants, who were able to reach rescuers using their cell phones, were like many in the region who narrowly escaped tragedy.
Linda Monholland ended her shift at the Park View Inn around 9 p.m., stepped outside the Gatlinburg, Tenn., resort and found herself surrounded by high flames. For 20 minutes Monday night, she and five colleagues struggled through the thick smoke and blowing embers of a sudden and deadly wildfire until they found safety in a tourist trolley turned evacuation shuttle.
“It was like we were in hell; hell opened up,” Linda Monholland said Tuesday from an 80-acre sports facility pressed into service as a shelter. “Walking through hell, that’s what it was. . . . I never want to see something like that again in my life, ever.”
Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said that the state was sending resources, including the National Guard, to help those left homeless by fire, which he called the worst in at least 100 years.
Although wind gusts exceeding 60 mph caused the disaster to explode in Sevier County, fires have been brewing for months in this region. More than 150,000 acres have been charred in the Southeast by large fires, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and nearly 4,000 firefighters have been called into action to fight blazes that keep popping up.
The wind carried the flames from the nearby Chimney Tops fire across ground parched by a historic drought and into the resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The fire moved too fast and too far to contain. “This is a fire for the history books,” Miller said Tuesday. “The likes of this has never been seen here. But the worst is definitely over with.”
However, forecasts of strong wind gusts and severe thunderstorms through midweek threatened lightning strikes — and more fires.
Jeff Barker sat on the curb outside a shelter Tuesday afternoon, his eyes bloodshot and glassy with tears. He couldn’t bring himself to go inside. When he was returning from work on Monday, cars were being stopped from entering Gatlinburg, Barker said. So he set off on foot.
“By the time I arrived at my apartment, apartment’s gone, car’s gone, pets are gone,” he said. “It’s devastating when you come home, and all you can do is flee with the clothes on our back.”
Inside the gymnasium, other refugees from the fire were resting on cots or sharing stories of loss with neighbors.
Carol Lilleaas, a Gatlinburg resident, said she fled her home with only her animals and her husband’s ashes. She does not know what happened to her house or what she might be returning to. “It will be there, or it won’t,” she said.
Gatlinburg, with a population of about 4,000 about 43 miles south of Knoxville, is surrounded on three sides by Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies, part of the Appalachian mountain range, straddle the border between eastern Tennessee and North Carolina.
Considered the gateway town to the Tennessee side of the park, Gatlinburg draws more than 11 million visitors a year, according to tourism officials. It is known for its mountain chalets and ski lodge — drawing honeymooners and other visitors all year long.
Gatlinburg’s downtown was mostly spared, volunteer fire department Lt. Bobby Balding told the Knoxville News Sentinel. But he added: “It’s the apocalypse on both sides.”
Katie Brittain, manager at the Dress Barn in nearby Pigeon Forge, said that when she showed up to work Monday, the sky was brown and ash was raining down. Despite the ominous conditions, store employees were not sure whether they were supposed to evacuate from their location, not far from entertainer Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood.
Brittain said employees stayed put but grew increasingly nervous as the smoke thickened and the wind increased that afternoon. By the end of the day, she said, the inside of the store “smelled like a bonfire.” “My eyes were burning, and our throats were getting scratchy,” she said. “Everyone was kind of in a state of disbelief.”
Dollywood officials said in a statement that there was no damage to the park as of Tuesday morning, “but more than a dozen cabins managed through Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins were damaged or destroyed.”
Also most likely destroyed: a personal weather station on the east side of Gatlinburg. At 8:34 p.m. Monday, it showed wind gusts spiking at 69 mph and the temperature at 118 degrees before the station went offline, presumably engulfed in flames.
Leslie Wylie contributed to this report from Gatlinburg. Travis Andrews, Peter Holley and Sarah Larimer contributed from Washington. The Associated Press in Gatlinburg also contributed.