GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — People in cars and trucks rolled into the wildfire-ravaged city of Gatlinburg on Friday to get a first look at what remained of their homes and businesses, and a mayor raised the death toll to 13, including a woman who died of a heart attack during the firestorm.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters also increased the number of buildings damaged, saying it now approaches 1,000.
“I can’t describe to you the feelings we have over this tragedy,” he said during a news conference with the governor and U.S. senators.
Local officials, bowing to pressure from frustrated property owners, said they would allow people back into most parts of the city Friday morning. Residents have to pass through a checkpoint and must show some proof of ownership or residency, Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle said.
“The city is not implying that private property is safe,” she said. “People may encounter downed powerlines or other hazards.”
Among those anxiously waiting to return was Tracy Mayberry. He and his wife, 12-year-old son and five dogs have bounced between hotels since they were forced to evacuate their rental home Monday night. They were struggling to find a place to stay Thursday as many lodges began to discontinue the special rates for evacuees.
“It feels like Gatlinburg is more worried about how to rebuild than they are about their people,” he said.
The dead included a Memphis couple who was separated from their three sons during the wildfires. The three young men — Jared, Wesley and Branson Summers — learned that their parents had died as they were recovering in the hospital.
“The boys, swaddled in bandages with tubes hanging out and machines attached, were allowed to break quarantine, and were together in the same room, briefly, when I confirmed their parents’ death,” their uncle Jim Summers wrote on a Facebook page set up for the family. “Their injures pale in comparison with their grief.”
Other fatalities included a couple from Canada, 71-year-old Jon Tegler and 70-year-old Janet Tegler, and May Vance, who was vacationing in Gatlinburg and died of a heart attack after she was exposed to smoke. Identities for the other victims have not been released.
In communities near Gatlinburg, there were signs of normalcy. In Pigeon Forge, the Comedy House rented an electronic billboard message that said it was open. A hotel flyer urged guests to check out the scenic Cades Cove loop: “Take a drive and remember what you love about the Smokies!”
Dollywood, the amusement park named after Parton, will reopen Friday afternoon after it was spared any damage.
The Associated Press was allowed access into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Thursday. A forest of bare trees standing amid a scorched landscape could be seen along with fire crews sawing up a tree stump.
In Gatlinburg, the center of the devastation, officials there hope to open the city’s main roads to the public by Wednesday.
Authorities searching the charred remains of homes and businesses said they expected to finish by nightfall Friday.
Despite recent heavy rains, fire officials warned people shouldn’t have a false sense of security because months of drought have left the ground bone-dry. Wildfires can rekindle, they said.
The trouble began Monday when a wildfire, likely caused by a person, spread from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the Gatlinburg area as hurricane-force winds toppled trees and power lines, blowing embers in all directions.
“We had trees going down everywhere, power lines, all those power lines were just like lighting a match because of the extreme drought conditions. So we went from nothing to over 20-plus structure fires in a matter of minutes. And that grew and that grew and that grew,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said.
More than 14,000 residents and visitors in Gatlinburg were forced to evacuate, and the typically bustling tourist city has been shuttered ever since.
Deputy Park Superintendent Jordan Clayton said the initial fire on area called Chimney Tops, which is a double peaked ridge line about 4 miles away from Gatlinburg, was caused by a person or people. It’s near the end of a popular hiking trail and there were people on that trail on Nov. 23 when the fire started, as there are almost every day.
“Whether it was purposefully set or whether it was a careless act that was not intended to cause a fire, that we don’t know,” Clayton said. “The origin of the fire is under investigation.”
Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are helping investigate the cause.
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