Wildfire death toll rises to 7
Storms bring rain but also tornadoes, killing 5 in Southeast
ATLANTA— Search-andrescue teams continued Wednesday to scour the charred hills and ridges around the mountain resort town of Gatlinburg, Tenn., after wildfires fueled by severe winds roared through the eastern part of the state.
As the death toll climbed to seven Wednesday, hot spots continued to blaze around the quaint Appalachian tourism center that attracts 11 million people a year. Residents and visitors remained under a mandatory evacuation order after more than 250 homes, vacation cabins, motels and businesses were reduced to rubble.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said they had found three people who had been trapped since the fires started spreading wildly in high winds on Mondaynight. The mayor said the three were OK.
“That is some good, positive news for a change,” he said.
While overnight storms dropped long-awaited rain early Wednesday, helping to douse the parched, fire-ravaged landscape, they also brought a risk of flooding. On Wednesdaymorning, the National Weather Service issued an urban and small stream flood advisory for Gatlinburg and surrounding Sevier County.
The storms also wreaked havoc on tiny, rural communities across the Southeast, killing five people and injuring dozens in Alabama and Tennessee.
Three people perished when a tornado demolished a mobile home in the small The remains of a van and home smolder Wednesday in the wake of a wildfire in Gatlinburg. town of Rosalie, in northeastern Alabama. Five miles east, a day care center in Ider, Ala., was destroyed, leaving four children in critical condition. A married couple was also killed in Polk County in southern Tennessee, the state Department of Health said.
“We don’t usually get tornadoes this time of year,” said Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen of Jackson County, Ala., where 50 buildings were damaged or destroyed. “But this has not been a normal weather year.”
Wildfires have been spreading for weeks in the Southeast, where severe drought persists. As many as 20 large fires are currently blazing across 142,000 acres, according to Adam Rondeau, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, who described the unusually parched conditions as creating the “perfect storm” for wildfires.
On Monday night, high winds swept eastern Tennessee, blowing burning embers from a wildfire on Chimney Tops mountain into Gatlinburg, the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Local officials and residents in the town were taken aback by howswiftly the fires spread as winds ignited new fire spots and knocked live power lines down onto dry autumn leaves. In a span of just 15 minutes, the fire chief said, emergency workers were alerted to almost 20 burning buildings.
“You know, it happened so fast, it was staggering,” said Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his twostory home as well as the condominium business he has managed for 31 years. “When you’ve got winds of up to 87 mph pushing fire, people were basically running for their lives.”
Michael Luciano, who lives in Chalet Village, west of downtown Gatlinburg, recorded cellphone video of his harrowing journey down a narrow mountain road in a