Gatlinburg wildfires: 13 dead, 1,000 structures impacted

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Wildfires in the area of Gatlinburg, Tenn., are continuing to wreak havoc. Thirteen people are confirmed dead.

  • Hundreds of homes, other buildings destroyed
  • 13 people killed, 45 hospitalized
  • 14,000 have been evacuated
  • Smell of smoke in the Miami Valley is from Tenn. wildfires

VIDEO: Evacuees drive through flames to flee Tenn. wildfires

VIDEO: Gatlinburg homes, cars destroyed by wildfires

VIDEO: Gatlinburg mayor loses his home to the wildfires

VIDEO: Man searches for wife, 2 daughters in evacuations

UPDATE @ 4:45 p.m.

The number of fatalities remain at 13, Waters said during his afternoon update brief to the media Friday. However, Sevier County assistant medical examiner said one of the bodies has been identified as Alice Hagler, 70.

Crews are hoping to complete their search of the city and parts of the county by Friday evening, but officials aren’t sure when the city of Gatlinburg will reopen for business, City Manager Cindy Ogle said.

In addition, all areas within the city and county will be opened by Saturday for property owners to check on their properties, Waters said, noting that about 1,000 structures have been damaged by the fires.

The limited access for people to check out their properties Friday went well, so they will continue the process through Wednesday.

In addition, the ATF and park officials are continuing their investigation to determine the cause of the fire, said Cassius Cash, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He asked that anyone who was in the park days leading up to the fires call 888-653-0009 and share whatever information you have with investigators.

UPDATE @ 11:15 a.m. (Dec. 2)

Larry Waters, Sevier County mayor, said in a news conference Friday the death toll has risen to 13 related directly to the fires, and a 13th person suffered a heart attack and died.

A Sevier County assistant medical examiner released the names of five dead, including a 71-year-old man and his 70-year-old wife and a married couple, both ages 61.

The number of those treated for injuries has increased by one to 85.

Waters said about 1,000 structures have been affected by the wildfires. The county now has a service for property owners to check the status of their structures.

Property owners can begin visiting their properties today, Waters said. The plan is to open the city of Gatlinburg to the public next Wednesday, Dec. 7.

“What a great job our emergency responders are doing,” Waters said.

There are a total of 16 various state agencies assisting in Tennessee. There are also job resources available for those whose daily jobs and source of income has been affected by the wildfires.

“We’re tough and ornery,” Waters said of Sevier County.

The county had alerted residents by a text message to evacuate at 9:04 p.m. Monday. Door-to-door evacuations had started earlier that night.

The area was also faced with power outages Monday night.

UPDATE @ 4:50 p.m. (Dec. 1)

The death toll is now up to 11 and 80 people have been treated at local hospitals, official said during their afternoon updates.

They’ve also found several people who have been reported mission the past few days, and they’re continuing their search.

All roads will also be reopened by 10 a.m. Friday, officials said. In addition, several area businesses are opened, and they encourage people to patronize them.

In addition, home owners, business owners and lease holders will be given limited access to certain areas between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. through Sunday if all goes well. There are still a few areas where they can’t allow people to access because of ongoing searches and electrical wires and other hazards.

East Parkway, near the Gatlinburg City Hall will be the only access into those areas, officials said. Residents wanting access need to bring with them proof of ownership or some other identification to prove that they have property in the area, officials said.

Property owners should be prepared for possible delays or alternates routes. Also, city and county officials said some structures may not be safe, so people should use good judgment before entering them.

Officials say they believe all the fires have been extinguished, although there may be hot spots in some areas. Also, the search for people is winding down and a large percentage of the city and county have been combed, officials said.

Local and federal officials continue to work together to determine the cause of the fire.

UPDATE @ 2:35 p.m. (Dec. 1)

In their daily press briefing, Gatlinburg officials said the number of fatalities remain at seven. However, the number of people who have been treated at local hospitals as a result of the fire increased from 53 to 74.

Some of those people have been treated and released while others remain hospitalized.

Officials have yet to identify the bodies of the victims, and they said while they understand the frustration, it’s imperative that they follow the process so they don’t misidentify victims.

Several leads have come in about missing persons, and the search teams are following 70 leads, officials said. They ask that those who still have loved ones mission call 1-800-TBI-FIND (824-3463).

The heavy rainfall in the area Tuesday did little to slow the fire, officials said, noting that 17,000 acres of land have burned to date and more than 400 structures destroyed. Firefighters are working around to clock to ensure there are no hot spots that can reignite, officials said.

In addition, officials said beginning today they will update GIS maps with photos of the affected areas to allow property owners to see if their structures were damaged. Property owners can visit Chimney Tops 2 Fire on Facebook to search for their properties.

They will update the maps as they get the information, so they urge that owners who don’t immediately see their properties keep checking.

During the press briefing the local Red Cross representative reiterated that people who want to help hold off on sending in kind donations such as food, water and clothing until they find a place to store the items. They’re hoping to have a centralized location later today to store the donations.

In addition, Dolly Parton’s representatives at the briefing announced that she set up a fund that will provide $1,000 per month for six months to everyone who lost their home in the fire.

UPDATE@4:30 p.m.

Officials have discovered an additional three bodies, bringing the total to seven. The three bodies were found at the same residence, officials said. They are working to identify the victims, a spokesman said during a press conference.

In addition, first responders this afternoon rescued three people who were trapped by the fire, and all have been cleared medically and released, a spokesperson said.

More than 700 structures have been damaged in the fire so far, officials said, noting that the heavy rain in the area this afternoon has been helpful. In addition, about 15,738 acres have been burned so far, officials said.

A 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew will remain in effect, the mayor said.

Officials have established a hotline for families to call to help locate loved ones they talk to on a regularly but have not been able to reach them since the fire started. They should call 1-800-TBI-FIND (824-3463).

Also, Gatlinburg schools will be opened Thursday and grief counselors will be available at the schools for students and faculty, officials said.

The total number of people who have been treated is not up to 53, officials said.

Several first responders have lost their homes, although city officials don’t know yet how many, the fire chief said.

Most of the fire in the city of Gatlinburg has been contained, with the exception of one structure fire that was discovered this afternoon, the chief said, noting that some could rekindle.

Officials said the fire was likely started by a person, and they are working to find the cause.

UPDATE@12:07 p.m.:

A fourth body was found at a motel this morning and a total of 45 people have been hospitalized, Gatlinburg government officials said during a press conference Wednesday morning. There are still people who are unaccounted for, rescuers are making every efforts to reconnect people with their loved ones as soon as possible, officials said.

Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said there are currently more than 200 firefighters on the ground working to contain the fires. There were eight new fires overnight, most of which were brush fires because of high winds, and there was one structure fire, he said. In addition, trees are falling and taking down power lines that are hindering their ability to get to certain areas and fight fires, he said.

“A new challenge the weather is creating for us after the fires is that we are experiencing mud slides, so we have to go back to areas where we thought were taken care off,” Miller said. He said the rain may help prevent some of the brush fires. But unless the rain penetrates deep enough, there will still be hot spots that he and his firefighters have to respond to, he said.

The local Red Cross said they’ve heard from an overwhelming amount of people have expressed interest in helping, and they are grateful. However, people should hold off on sending in kind donations such as water, food, clothing and the like, for now.

Officials need to focus their efforts on finding shelter for displaced residents before they can focus on they donations that are expected to come in.

Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said he’s optimistic that the city will bounce back.

“We are going to be OK,” he said. “We are going to be back on our feet soon,” people should go visit the city once they rebuild.


News Center 7 reporter John Bedell is en route to Tennessee this morning where wildfires have killed three and injured at least 14 others in the Gatlinburg area.

Tune in to News Center 7, listen to AM 1290 and News 95.7 FM and check back here for the latest updates. You can follow Bedell on twitter @JBedellWHIO.

Overnight, strong and severe thunderstorms developed in the area, triggering tornado warnings just north of Gatlinburg. More rain is expected today.

Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said most of the injuries are non-life-threatening. He said they haven’t received any reports of missing people.

According to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, three people suffered severe burns and were taken to Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville. A fourth burn victim was being treated at University of Tennessee Knoxville Hospital.

Miller said the fire spread Monday night by winds that at times exceeded 87 miles per hour.

Ripley’s Aquarium, which had been threatened by the wildfires, is intact and running on a generator, according to a statement from the aquarium.

“We are grateful to have had the police escort our emergency team back into the aquarium early this morning to check on the well being of our animals,” said a statement posted to the aquarium’s website Tuesday. “We have a team of marine biologists and life support experts inside the aquarium and are happy to report the animals are safe.”

At a news conference Tuesday, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies was not damaged as of Tuesday morning. Workers there evacuated and had been worried about the more than 10,000 animals housed there.

Dollywood representatives say the theme park hasn’t been damaged by wildfires, but more than a dozen cabins operated by the park have been damaged or destroyed.

Preliminary surveys indicate that the fires have more than 100 buildings of the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa.

Thousands of residents and visitors in the Gatlinburg area have been evacuated and hundreds of structures have been damaged and destroyed by spreading wildfires.

Officials say about 14,000 residents and visitors were evacuated from Gatlinburg alone.

About 500 people were evacuated from Pigeon Forge Monday night. The mandatory evacuation order in Pigeon Forge has been lifted, but remains in Gatlinburg. As of Tuesday night, nearly 11,000 people were without power.

A lingering smell of smoke in parts of the Miami Valley is the result of the raging wildfires, Storm Center 7 Meteorologist Kirstie Zontini said.

Strong winds Monday night into Tuesday morning out of the south and southeast have pushed smoke from wildfires in Gatlinburg, TN into the Miami Valley.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park said the park is effectively closed, park personnel and residences at their headquarters have been evacuated, and most of the main roads in the park are closed. The southbound lanes of the Spur from Pigeon Forge to Gatlinburg are also closed because of fire activity.

Park officials have said the fire began Nov. 23 and is likely the result of arson.

The rain forecast “puts the bull’s-eye of the greatest amounts right at the bull’s-eye of where we’ve been having our greatest activity,” Dave Martin, deputy director of operations for fire and aviation management with the southern region of the U.S. Forest Service, told the Associated Press.

The projected rainfall amounts “really lines up with where we need it,” Martin said Monday. “We’re all knocking on wood.”

Rain is also in the forecast for Wednesday in the region.