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    Richard T. Ramsey and Sue Ramsey hold hands while looking at the skyline from the remains of their house of 41 years Thursday in Gatlinburg, Tenn. They safely evacuated from their home as wildfire approached Monday.
December 02, 2016 1:02 AM

Officials seeking source of Gatlinburg fires

10 people dead; fire chief expects toll to keep rising

Washington Post

Efforts to pinpoint the cause of deadly wildfires that engulfed two tourist towns outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park and shut down one of the country’s most popular natural attractions focused Thursday on their devastating path through East Tennessee, where 10 people have been found dead and hundreds of buildings have burned.

Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller told reporters Thursday that the devastation has been “unfathomable” and warned that the death toll could continue to rise, as numerous people are still missing.

“We’re never going to give up hope. I will always hang onto hope that there’s a chance of rescue,” Miller said at a midday news conference. “But now, we are at hour 65 from the beginning of 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.”

Hours later, at another briefing, officials announced that a number of missing people had been found. But the good news was accompanied by a grim revelation: Three more bodies had been recovered, increasing the death toll in the fires to 10.

Emergency workers have made significant progress with search efforts, officials said. But Miller noted that in some areas around Sevier County, structures were destroyed so completely that “to search much further would take forensics.”

The American Red Cross launched a service to try to reunite those who were separated; the number of those unaccounted for, however, is not clear. Officials said midday Thursday that they were following up on about 70 leads, though that number did not necessarily reflect the number of those missing.

At least 80 people have been treated for injuries suffered in the fires, which spread into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge on Monday, and some people remain hospitalized.

The fires are estimated to have damaged or destroyed more than 700 homes and businesses – nearly half of them in the city of Gatlinburg. Additionally, thousands of wooded acres have burned in the most-visited national park in America. Park Superintendent Cassius Cash said that the first fires, which were spotted last week, were “likely to be human-caused” but that others were started when strong winds knocked trees into power lines.

As people throughout the region tried to move forward and return to their routines – and their homes – on Thursday, some schools were still closed, and access to Gatlinburg remained limited. Officials said they hope to have two main roads open by this weekend and will reopen side streets as soon as it is safe to allow residents to return to their neighborhoods to assess the damage. Nearly all schools in the county are expected to be open today.

“We’re going to be good, we’re going to be strong, we’re going to be back,” Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner reassured local residents Thursday. “We’ll be OK.”

Although authorities have not yet publicly identified the victims of the fire, at least one has been named by relatives, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. Alice Hagler’s son Lyle Wood told the newspaper Wednesday night that his mother’s body had been found “in the ruins of her home, her life taken by a devastating fire that impacted so many lives in East Tennessee.”

A telethon for the American Red Cross of East Tennessee’s relief efforts raised more than $120,000 by Thursday afternoon.

Country music icon Dolly Parton, who was born and raised in the area and whose Dollywood theme park was in the path of the fires, launched her own fundraiser and pledged to donate $1,000 per month for six months to families who lost their homes.

“I have always believed that charity begins at home,” she said in statement. “We want to provide a hand up to those families who have lost everything in the fires … until they get back up on their feet.”

The Pigeon Forge theme park was not damaged, but company officials said that more than a dozen rental cabins managed by Dollywood were damaged or destroyed. Dollywood remained closed Thursday.

The “Chimney Tops 2” fire was first reported Nov. 23 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, according to the National Park Service. The wildfire exploded on Monday, as massive walls of flames spread down the mountains into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge with shocking speed, according to those who fled with little more than the clothes on their backs.

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, according to the agency.

Miller, the Gatlinburg fire chief, stressed Thursday that the precipitation should not give people a false sense of security “because fire is a tremendous beast.”

He said there are about 200 firefighters on the ground – 20 percent of them still battling active blazes. Search-and-rescue efforts have continued in the charred, smoke-choked mountains, but some areas have remained unreachable, authorities said. First responders have also been 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 more than 17,000 acres have burned.

Property damage was extensive, both to private residences and to buildings at the heart of the tourism industry.

The News Sentinel reported fire damage to the Chalet Village, among other popular rental cabins, hotels and resorts. The Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa, a mountainside resort boasting spacious villas steps away from the national park, reported heavy destruction, but officials said the core of the resort survived and would reopen in the coming weeks.