Wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains area near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, have left seven people dead, officials said Wednesday. Over 14,000 people have been evacuated since the fire broke out Monday night when ashes from flames in Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park blew into Gatlinburg due to high winds.
Authorities were working to identify the deceased and no further details were released. The fire destroyed more than 15,500 acres, injured 53 people, torched over 700 houses and damaged Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge cities as well as surrounding areas. Gatlinburg Police Chief Randall Brackins said about 30 percent or less of the city area has been searched so far, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
Heavy winds, which authorities said were of “hurricane-force,” intensified the fire Tuesday. This also resulted in fallen trees, which barred access to some areas, Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said. Although heavy rains in the area helped ease the fire, Miller said that firefighters were now facing rocks and mudslides.
By Wednesday afternoon, firefighters contained most of the blaze. However, authorities expressed uncertainty over the situation. A hotline for people to report missing friends and family was set up by state law enforcement.
While the evacuation order for Pigeon Forge was lifted, the one for Gatlinburg remained.
Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said that authorities were in talks to re-open the city Friday so that business owners can review the damage.
“You really can’t let everybody in yet because there are still areas that haven't been searched, there are still areas where electric lines are down, power poles are down,” Werner reportedly said.
Werner himself lost his home, two dogs and all seven of the condominium buildings he owned, according to AP. He is staying at a friend’s house and has reportedly raised about $150,000 from local businesses to help with the relief efforts.
“I really can’t dwell on it that much. I think of others that have lost theirs, and it keeps my mind off of our problems,” he said. “It’s really hard, it’s really tough.”