Seven deaths confirmed as Smokies wildfires spread in Tennessee

Alex Johnson and Erik Ortiz
Seven deaths confirmed as Tennessee wildfires spread

Officials were continuing to assess the damage Thursday from a ferocious wildfire that erupted across Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park more than a week ago, killing at least seven people and gutting over 700 structures.

Drenching rain on Wednesday helped firefighters beat back the massive blaze, which still burned more than 15,650 acres and was about 10 percent contained, according to the Southern Area Incident Management Team, which assumed command of the fire.

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Rescue operations have been slowed by mud and rockslides caused by the wet weather.

"The rain we received may have slowed this fire for a day or two at a critical time, but the threat from this fire is still there," the team said.

While large swaths of the national park were ravaged, the wind-whipped flames also reached the neighboring Appalachian tourist meccas of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters confirmed Wednesday afternoon that three more people were dead.

The family of one of the seven victims identified her to NBC News as 70-year-old Alice Hagler.

Hagler was last heard from on Monday night, when she was on the phone with a son at her home in Gatlinburg and the line went dead, reported NBC affiliate WBIR.

"My mother called me frantically that the house was on fire, yelling that the house was on fire, and I told her to get out of the house," James Wood told the station. He tried desperately to return to the cabin where they lived, but found the inferno was too intense.

"I made my best to get to her," Wood said. "The fires were absolutely, entirely impossible to get through up on Wiley Oakley Road. I did make it to the road, but two miles up I couldn't make it any further."

Amid the disaster, a firefighter suffered minor injuries and 53 people have been treated at the hospital, officials said.

Waters didn't know the conditions of the patients, but said "many of those have been released."

Incident commanders said the blazes started with the human-caused Chimney 2 Fire, which was reported in the park Nov. 23. By Monday, the region's prolonged drought and extreme winds were causing the fire to spit out embers that quickly ignited numerous new fires, they said.

Fire commanders said more than 700 structures in Sevier County have been damaged or destroyed — about 300 of them in Gatlinburg — and as many as 14,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes, authorities said.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime event," Waters said. "This was a perfect storm."

An unknown number of people remain missing, although families have been asking for help to find their loved ones.

President Barack Obama also spoke with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and committed to providing any assistance to help fight the fire. The White House said FEMA approved a grant earlier this week to mobilize resources.

Major threatened areas include Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the latter which is home to Dollywood, the theme park named for country music superstar Dolly Parton.

The attraction itself wasn't damaged, a spokesman said, but the fire came perilously close.

Parton, a native of Sevier County, released a video Wednesday night pledging to pay $1,000 a month as part of the My People Fund to help families who lost their homes "until they get back up on their feet."

She said her companies — which include the DreamMore resort, where dozens of families were evacuated — "want to provide a hand up to all those families that have lost everything in the fires and to recover."