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Death toll rises to 13 in Tennessee wildfires as grim search for survivors continues

Tens of thousands of people have escaped a deadly wildfire in East Tennessee. Here's a look at the aftermath of the disaster. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The 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 13 people have been found dead and hundreds of buildings have burned.

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

“We’re never going to give up hope. I will always hang onto hope that there’s a chance of rescue,” he said at a news conference Thursday. “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.”

Although officials said emergency workers have made significant progress with search efforts, 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 remain hospitalized.

How the Gatlinburg wildfire erupted overnight

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 the main roads, with a few exceptions, would be open to property owners Friday to allow them to return to their neighborhoods to assess the damage.

Lt. Steve Coker of the Sevierville Fire Dept. captured video of wildfires burning in eastern Tennessee as his fire crew moved through the town of Gatlinburg. (Video: Twitter @alliecoker7)

“We’re mountain tough and have a strong, strong faith in God,” Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said Thursday afternoon.

Werner said nearly his entire neighborhood had burned to the ground.

By Friday, relatives and officials had named several victims from the fire.

Alice Hagler, who went missing at Chalet Village, was identified Wednesday night by her son Lyle Wood, who said 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,” according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Jon and Janet Summers, a Memphis couple who were also reportedly staying at the rental cabins, were confirmed to be among the dead, according to the newspaper.

Officials said a couple from Canada, 71-year-old John Tegler and 70-year-old Janet Tegler, also died in Chalet Village; authorities were still trying to notify family members for another victim on Friday, according to the News Sentinel.

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A telethon for the American Red Cross of East Tennessee’s relief efforts raised more than $270,000 by Friday.

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 continued in the charred, smoke-choked mountains, but some areas remained unreachable, authorities said. First responders also struggled 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 had burned.

This video depicts the horrifying wildfire evacuation in Gatlinburg

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.

The Alamo Steakhouse in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg’s Mountain Lodge Restaurant were destroyed, according to the News Sentinel, which has compiled a running list of the structures that sustained damage. Employees at the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, which houses more than 10,000 exotic sea creatures, were forced to evacuate and leave the animals behind Monday as wildfires grew, but the structure made it unscathed, and the animals were unharmed, according to the newspaper.

Gatlinburg, with a population of about 4,000 about 43 miles south of Knoxville, is surrounded on three sides by Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies, part of the Appalachian mountain range, straddle the border between eastern Tennessee and North Carolina. Considered the gateway town to the Tennessee side of the park, Gatlinburg draws more than 11 million visitors a year, according to tourism officials. It is known for its mountain chalets and ski lodge — drawing honeymooners and other visitors all year long.

Despite widespread destruction and chaos, officials said the last few days were not without some good news. Miller said rescuers were able to free three people who became trapped in an elevator at the Westgate resort after it lost power during a fire. The trapped occupants, who were able to reach rescuers using their cellphones, were like many in the region who narrowly escaped tragedy.

Linda Monholland ended her shift at the Park View Inn around 9 p.m. Monday, stepped outside the Gatlinburg resort and found herself surrounded by high flames, according to the Associated Press. For 20 minutes, she and five colleagues struggled through the thick smoke and blowing embers of a sudden wildfire until they found safety in a tourist trolley turned evacuation shuttle.

“It was like we were in hell; hell opened up,” Monholland told the AP Tuesday from an 80-acre sports facility pressed into service as a shelter. “Walking through hell, that’s what it was. . . . I never want to see something like that again in my life, ever.”

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Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said that the state was sending resources, including the National Guard, to help those left homeless by fire, which he called the worst in at least 100 years.

Although wind gusts exceeding 60 mph caused the disaster to explode in Sevier County, fires have been brewing for months in this region. More than 150,000 acres have been charred in the Southeast by large fires, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and nearly 4,000 firefighters have been called into action to fight blazes that keep popping up.

The wind carried the flames from the nearby Chimney Tops fire across ground parched by a historic drought and into the surrounding towns. The fire moved too fast and too far to contain. “This is a fire for the history books,” Miller said Tuesday. “The likes of this has never been seen here. But the worst is definitely over with.”

Michael Luciano captured video of the wildfire burning north of the Great Smoky Mountains as he tried to flee to safety in the early morning of Nov. 29. (Video: Facebook/Michael Luciano)

However, forecasts of strong wind gusts and severe thunderstorms through midweek threatened lightning strikes — and more fires.

Jeff Barker sat on the curb outside a shelter Tuesday afternoon, his eyes bloodshot and glassy with tears. He couldn’t bring himself to go inside. When he was returning from work on Monday, cars were being stopped from entering Gatlinburg, Barker said. So he set off on foot.

“By the time I arrived at my apartment, apartment’s gone, car’s gone, pets are gone,” he said. “It’s devastating when you come home, and all you can do is flee with the clothes on our back.”

Inside the gymnasium, other refugees from the fire were resting on cots or sharing stories of loss with neighbors.

Carol Lilleaas, a Gatlinburg resident, said she fled her home with only her animals and her husband’s ashes. She does not know what happened to her house or what she might be returning to. “It will be there, or it won’t,” she said.

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Gatlinburg’s downtown was mostly spared, volunteer fire department Lt. Bobby Balding told the News Sentinel. But he added: “It’s the apocalypse on both sides.”

Katie Brittain, manager at the Dress Barn in Pigeon Forge, said that when she showed up to work Monday, the sky was brown and ash was raining down. Despite the ominous conditions, store employees were not sure whether they were supposed to evacuate from their location, not far from Dollywood.

Brittain said employees stayed put but grew increasingly nervous as the smoke thickened and the wind increased that afternoon. By the end of the day, she said, the inside of the store “smelled like a bonfire.” “My eyes were burning, and our throats were getting scratchy,” she said. “Everyone was kind of in a state of disbelief.”

This post, originally published Nov. 30, has been updated. Leslie Wylie contributed from Gatlinburg. Travis Andrews and Sarah Larimer contributed from Washington.