Death toll from wild­fires in Ten­nessee at dou­ble dig­its.

Great Smoky Moun­tains Na­tional Park of­fi­cial: Fires likely ‘hu­man-caused’

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY ADAM BEAM AND JONATHAN MATTISE

GATLIN­BURG, TENN. | Crews dis­cov­ered three more bod­ies as they searched the rub­ble of wild­fires that torched hun­dreds of homes and busi­nesses near the Great Smoky Moun­tains, bring­ing the death toll to 10, of­fi­cials said Thursday.

Author­i­ties set up a hot­line for peo­ple to re­port miss­ing friends and rel­a­tives, and after fol­low­ing up on dozens of leads, they said many of those peo­ple had been ac­counted for. They did not say whether they be­lieve any­one else is still miss­ing.

Search-and-res­cue mis­sions con­tin­ued un­til dark, but Gatlin­burg Fire Chief Greg Miller said that since it had been three days since the fires, “we have to come to a re­al­iza­tion that the po­ten­tial is great that it could be more of a re­cov­ery than a res­cue.”

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 the wild­fires can rekin­dle.

A wild­fire, likely started by a per­son, spread Mon­day from the Great Smoky Moun­tains into the tourist city of Gatlin­burg when hur­ri­cane-force winds top­pled trees and power lines, blow­ing em­bers in all di­rec­tions. More than 14,000 res­i­dents and vis­i­tors in Gatlin­burg were forced to evac­u­ate and the city has been shut­tered ever since.

“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,” Chief Miller said.

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.”

Mr. Werner has spent the bet­ter part of three days stand­ing in front of TV cam­eras say­ing “ev­ery­thing is go­ing to be OK,” all while he lost the home he built him­self along with all seven build­ings of the con­do­minium busi­ness he owned.

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.

About 10,000 acres, or 15 square miles, have burned in­side the coun­try’s most-vis­ited na­tional park. An­other 6,000 acres have been torched out­side of the park.

Se­vier County Mayor Larry Waters said author­i­ties have made “sig­nif­i­cant progress in the search and clear­ing” of the rub­ble.

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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Wood said.

The mayor said author­i­ties are 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 Dolly Par­ton. Miss Par­ton said The Dol­ly­wood Co. and The Dol­ly­wood Foun­da­tion were es­tab­lish­ing the My Peo­ple Fund, which will pro­vide $1,000 monthly to Se­vier County fam­i­lies who lost their homes.

The flames reached the doorstep of Dol­ly­wood, the theme park named after Miss Par­ton, but the park was spared any sig­nif­i­cant dam­age and will re­open Fri­day.

About 240 peo­ple stayed overnight in shel­ters. Ear­lier this week, Mark Howard was flat on his back with pneu­mo­nia in the hos­pi­tal when the wild­fires started. He called 911 when he heard his house was con­sumed.

The 57-year-old owner of a handy­man busi­ness said the dis­patcher told him about the ex­tent of the wild­fires.

“I had no in­sur­ance. It’s a to­tal loss,” Mr. Howard said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Richard Ram­sey and Sue Ram­sey hold hands while look­ing at the sky­line from the re­mains of their house of 41 years on Thursday, in Gatlin­burg, Ten­nessee. They safely evac­u­ated from their home as wild­fire ap­proached Mon­day evening.

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