Tennessee wildfire death toll rises to 4; heavy damage for tourist mecca


Officials have confirmed that an additional person has died in connection with wildfires around Gatlinburg, Tennessee, bringing the death toll to four.

Three people were found dead from fires in the Chalet Village area, and one person was discovered dead near a motel on Highway 321. About four dozen people have been injured in the fires, The Associated Press reported.

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Sandra Cooper was helping to move her daughter and son-in-law out of their Gatlinburg home Monday when smoke and fire overwhelmed them.

"The fire was too close," said Cooper, 68. "The smoke got so bad we had to leave."

With the moving truck half full, they took off to the Hampton Inn in nearby Pigeon Forge, where heavy storms overnight brought a tornado warning that forced the evacuation of the top floors.

Cooper, carrying her twin one-year-old grandkids, ended up staying under a lobby stairwell.

Her family has yet to return home; they don't even know if it's standing.

"Could anything else happen?" she asked. "I don't know what day it is."

>> Related: Tennessee fire was 'human-caused;' 4 dead; what we know now

Hundreds of homes and businesses have burned and more than 14,000 people have fled from the Tennessee tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge as flames ripped through the Great Smoky Mountains, officials said.

The blaze moved into the towns late Monday night and early Tuesday fueled by powerful wind gusts nearing 90 mph. Tourists and residents were sent scrambling as the fire bore down.

Wednesday morning the rain continued, a thankful reprieve. But it brought with it concerns about mudslides and other dangers for the firefighters still battling the blaze, one of a number torching tens of thousands of acres across the drought-stricken Southeast.

In the kitschy tourist mecca of Pigeon Forge, there was a strange juxtaposition of mood early Wednesday, Even as some evacuated from their homes filling hotels in nearby communities, others here on vacation were still heading to the various attractions in Pigeon Forge. The place was lit up in all its Christmas finery, with all manner of colored lights, brightly lit trees and giant lighted snowflakes on the street poles along the Parkway main drag.

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But there was a smoky haze in the air around attractions such as the Hatfield and McCoy dinner theater, the big building that looks like a the Titanic, and the Ripley Aquarium. The smell infests itself in your nose and works its way down into an irritation in your chest.

Yolanda Thompson walked into to the breakfast area of the Hampton Inn looking exhausted and disheveled.

She had evacuated her Gatlinburg home when the fire and smoke advanced quickly Monday due to heavy winds, some reaching 80 miles per hour.

"It's gone. It's gone," she said of her home. "We are one of many, many who lost their homes."

>> Related: After wildfires, Dollywood worker finds lone, charred Bible page at park

As daylight dawned Wednesday morning, the harsh realities of the fast-spreading fire became apparent in Gatlinburg, a mountain town in eastern Tennessee known as the gateway to the vast Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Gatlinburg is often described as a kind of geographical bowl, surrounded by tree-filled hills. Many homes there are right up against the woods.

Andrew Leon came up from Alpharetta to work on restoring a hotel, severely damaged by smoke.

"It's full of smoke," said the restoration worker. "We see this all the time. It sucks."

Joe Miklojachak, who joined him from the Alpharetta disaster restoration company Cotton USA, said, "We do this around the world. You just have to put aside your feelings and do your job. It's like being in the military."

>>Related: Gatlinburg aquarium: 'Animals are safe' after devastating Tennessee wildfires

About 300 people came to a makeshift shelter in the LeConte Event Center in Pigeon Forge on Monday night, many fleeing as part of the mandatory evacuation of Gatlinburg. By Tuesday evening, the number of people was down to about 30 as many found refuge with relatives and friends. The shelter also held 29 eagles from Dollywood, the popular tourist attraction here. The attraction was not damaged.

Dollywood - named for country music superstar Dolly Parton - is a popular area destination. It wasn't damaged, but the fire was close. About a dozen of its cabins were damaged, and the attraction had closed temporarily.

"People are frustrated, ready to go home, not knowing that there home is there," said Ellen Watkins, the Red Cross Shelter manager.

>>Related: Wildfires in Tennessee: Man 'hoping for a miracle' after losing touch with wife, daughters

A volunteer, Kathy Christian, posted a notice on Facebook that they had three dogs displaced in the fire. One person drove nearly two hours to pick up one dog, a white mutt with ears that looked like they had been dipped in chocolate. The dog had one brown eye and one blue.

Locals did what they could to help out. Players and staff from the Hatfield and McCoy theater volunteered at the shelter. The dinner theater offered a free lunch Tuesday, and the Comedy Barn offered a free show.

Heather Sami was among three nurses who showed up at a separate shelter on Gatlinburg. They helped people with breathing issues, offering inhalers and breathing treatments.

>> Related: Dolly Parton grieves as wildfire tears through her Tennessee hometown

Sami's husband had just worked 32 hours straight as a firefighter taking on the spreading flames.

"He was trapped in the Park Vista (hotel) for a time," she said. "By the grace of God he got out."

The fire spread quickly, she said. Just before, her husband had been doing work to prevent the spread of it, clearing debris and wetting down some structures. Then the intense winds whipped up "throwing fire everywhere," she said.

Vacationing here on her 35th wedding anniversary, Cindy McLain was taking in the shops in Gatlinburg when she saw what she thought was snow flitting through the air. But it was too warm for snow, she thought, and soon after realized it was ash from the growing fires.

>> Photos: Forest fires loom outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Within 20 minutes, "everything took on a reddish glow. You couldn't see the next stoplight."

She's from the New Orleans area and the tragedy here reminded her of the Katrina floods.

"Our hearts hurt for the people here," she said.

She and her husband evacuated to a hotel in Pigeon Forge.


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