Death toll rises to 7 in Gatlinburg wildfires

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. — Seven people now have been confirmed dead in the wildfires that swept Gatlinburg this week, authorities said Wednesday.

Early assessments indicate more than 700 homes and businesses have been damaged or destroyed across Sevier County as flames whipped in high winds raged through town Monday night into Tuesday morning and displaced more than 14,000 residents, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said. Fire officials said that number includes about 300 buildings inside Gatlinburg city limits.

Witnesses called the inferno unlike any in the past century, and officials estimate that the wildfires have consumed more than 15,000 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains.

A firefighter also was hurt fighting the blaze, Waters said. The search continues for others who might have been killed or injured but not discovered because of blocked roads and power outages.

"We are trying to get into every area," Waters said. At least three people trapped because of fire damage had been rescued by Wednesday afternoon.

Eight new fires erupted Tuesday into Wednesday, Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said. The heavy rains that followed the fires have created new challenges as firefighters continue to check hot spots and assess damages.

"We're experiencing small rockslides and mudslides as we have to go back into areas we previously thought were accessible," the chief said.

The blaze apparently began when embers from a wildfire on nearby Chimney Tops Trail in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park wafted Monday night into the Twin Creek and Mynatt Park areas of Gatlinburg as already heavy winds doubled in speed, Miller said. The resulting flames swept through Gatlinburg in less than 15 minutes, fanned by winds at speeds that approached 90 mph.

At least 14 people suffered fire-related injuries, four of them serious.

Three brothers of a Nashville-based band called the Renaissance Fair — Branson Summers, 23, and twins Wesley and Jared Summers, 22 — were in critical but stable condition at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville after being transferred there for burns and other injuries sustained in the fires, according to a hospital spokeswoman. Friends say their parents, Jon and Janet Summers of Memphis, haven't been found after the family went to the Smoky Mountains for a Thanksgiving weekend getaway and split up as they tried to escape when debris blocked their route.

More than 14,000 people had been forced to leave Gatlinburg alone, and about 500 from Pigeon Forge, officials estimated. More than 2,000 people had been taken to emergency shelters.

Ken Lewis, manager of Red Cross shelter at Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg, said Wednesday that 200 people were at the shelter, down from a peak of 700 Tuesday. A lot of evacuees have been able to connect with friends and family and find a place to stay.

Inside the shelter stacks of food, bottled water, personal hygiene items and diapers. Local restaurants have donated hot prepared food as well.

The shelter also has an abundance of pet food and pet supplies.

"We had trucks and supplies coming in all day long," Lewis said.

Right now the shelter has too much and workers are trying to channel some of the items back into the community, he said.

"If people want to help, we've got everything we need right now," Lewis said.

He recommended people make donations to the Red Cross or other local community agencies that are assisting people.

News of the fires has brought condolences and offers of support pouring into East Tennessee from across the USA, including from President-Elect Donald Trump and former Vice President Al Gore, a Tennessee native.


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