3 dead after wildfire rips through Sevier County

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WKRN) – Three people died after a wildfire ripped through Sevier County Monday evening into Tuesday morning, officials confirmed.

“The loss of life is very saddening,” Mayor Mike Werner said, who lost his own home and business of 31 years in the blaze.

The identities of the three people killed have not yet been released. Authorities said they plan to share their names as soon as they possibly can.

While the mandatory emergency evacuations are still in effect in Gatlinburg, they were lifted in nearby Pigeon Forge late Tuesday afternoon.

PHOTOS: Wildfires burning in East Tennessee

Courtesy: WATE
Courtesy: WATE

“Monday night’s rainfall helped crews battle the blazes,” said Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson. “We were prepared for the rain to come and for receiving no rain at all. Fortunately, the rain came but the other conditions—specifically, the high winds—we experienced on Monday night subsided. We were able to avoid the dramatic spread of wildfires as we entered the second day, bringing much more favorable conditions overall.”

Governor Bill Haslam toured heavily-burned areas of Gatlinburg Tuesday afternoon and said the fire is the worst Tennessee has seen in 100 years.

“It’s a little numbing to see the extent of the damage,” Haslam said. “It’s a mini-miracle they were able to keep it controlled like they did.”

Thousands of people, likely over 14,000 residents and guests, were forced to evacuate Monday night as the fires continued to burn and quickly spread. In Pigeon Forge, officials estimate 500 people were evacuated Monday and approximately 125 people remain displaced and in local shelters.

“This is a special place in the state of Tennessee,” Gov. Haslam said. “Millions of families come here and will come here.”

Troopers work to evacuate those trapped by flames. (Courtesy: Tennessee Highway Patrol)
Troopers work to evacuate those trapped by flames. (Courtesy: Tennessee Highway Patrol)

Crews are still actively fighting fires, but Fire Chief Greg Miller said earlier Tuesday the worst is over.

“This is a fire for the history books,” Miller said.

City officials said the safety of their residents and visitors remain their top priority.

The widespread damaged happened after the Chimney Top Fire, which began in the Great Smoky Mountains, spread very rapidly Monday evening as 87 mph winds pushed flames into the cities and towns. Chief Miller explained that due to the high winds, trees were falling onto power lines which caught dry grass on fire.

“It’s been a difficult 24 hours,” Miller said.

Firefighters from throughout the state, including locally from Nashville, Murfreesboro, and Lebanon, have been mobilized to Sevier County, specifically to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, to help fight the wildfire.

“The state is proving a coordinated response, including the National Guard, to help all those affected by the devastating wildfires burning in Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and throughout the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) encourages residents in Sevier County to stay off mobile devices, unless it is an emergency, to prevent outage,” said a statement released by Gov. Bill Haslam on Tuesday.

Courtesy: Mark Nagi/TDOT via WATE
Courtesy: Mark Nagi/TDOT via WATE

More than 120 National Guard soldiers mobilized to East Tennessee on Tuesday to help with removing debris, welfare checks, and transporting first responders.

“The Tennessee National Guard is uniquely qualified to not only fight our nation’s wars, but also to respond to emergency operations here at home,” said Maj. Gen. Max Haston, Tennessee Adjutant General. “We are working closely with the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, numerous other state agencies and the local responders in Sevier and surrounding counties to assist in whatever is required to save lives and property.”

The Tennessee National Guard has been in the wildfire fight for several weeks providing local responders with UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters utilizing “Bambi Buckets” to fight fires in Southeastern Tennessee.

DAMAGE

As of late Tuesday afternoon, at least 150 buildings, including several homes had been damaged. Many city officials, including the mayor, lost their homes in the fire.

“It’s a devastating time for us and for Gatlinburg,” Mayor Werner said. “We’re strong and resilient and we’re going to make it. Gatlinburg is strong. I know we are going to be ok.”

A preliminary damage report states Westgate Resorts is likely entirely gone and Black Bear Falls has likely lost every single cabin.

TEMA initially said Ober Gatlinburg was also reportedly destroyed entirely. The agency later issued a statement Tuesday saying, “A video posted on Ober Gatlinburg appears to show the facility is ok this morning. We received on-the-ground reports last night and early this morning indicating the facility was destroyed. We are relieved to know this important Tennessee destination is still there.”

Ober Gatlinburg, a popular tourist attraction, confirmed via Twitter Tuesday morning that the property was OK.

Iconic areas like the Gatlinburg Space Needle, Sky Lift, Pancake Pantry, and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies are all reportedly unharmed.

LIST: Sites that are safe, damaged as East Tennessee wildfires continue

Numerous roads remain closed and blocked by fallen trees and power lines. State Hwy 441 heading into Gatlinburg is closed, except for emergency traffic. State Hwy 441 leaving Gatlinburg is open to evacuating traffic.

Fire Chief Miller said residents will be allowed back in their homes as soon as the “emergency is under control” and crews have “done everything to protect people and structures.”

City officials said in a news conference Tuesday Gatlinburg will rebuild, and the city is thankful for all the help and support it has received from across the country.

FATALITIES AND INJURIES

Along with the three deaths, as many as 14 other people have injuries and were transported to area hospitals for treatment.

Three people with severe burns were transferred from University of Tennessee’s Knoxville (UTK) hospital to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville overnight. A fourth victim with burns to their face continues to be evaluated at UTK.

Sevier County residents can indicate their status with the American Red Cross at the organization’s Safe and Well website. Anyone can check the website to see if their loved ones have checked in.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol posted images on Twitter of troopers walking into areas of Gatlinburg surrounded by fire to remove those who were trapped by flames.

Around 2,000 people have taken shelter at the Gatlinburg Community Center and at the Rocky Top Sports Park. The shelters are expected to remain open as long as they are needed.

There are also different animal shelters that are watching evacuees’ pets while families stay in the shelters.

The Tennessee Department of Correction also temporarily suspended home visits of offenders in the affected area of Sevier County.

Click here to view News 2’s continuing coverage of the Sevier County wildfire.