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7 dead, thousands displaced by Gatlinburg wildfires

A dousing rain helped tamp down the wildfires torturing Gatlinburg on Wednesday, but the flames had already claimed much from the popular tourist town: the death toll and the damage continued to rise throughout the day Wednesday as emergency crews pressed deeper into the mountainous woodlands to search for the injured and the dead.

The discovery of three more bodies Wednesday raised the death toll to seven. About 700 structures were reported damaged or destroyed in Gatlinburg and surrounding Sevier County.

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

“It’s gone. It’s gone,” she said of her Gatlinburg home, which burned during Monday evening’s firestorm. Hurricane-force winds were clocked at nearly 90 mph, spreading the fire dramatically. “We are one of many, many who lost their homes.”

The wind-driven fire drove residents like Thompson from their homes with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The mandatory evacuation order remained in place in Gatlinburg on Wednesday. Many of the thousands of people who have fled the area were still unable to return and find out whether their homes and businesses were even still standing.

Mayor Larry Waters said he would announce a date to lift the evacuation Thursday.

Looking ahead, Waters emphasized the strength of the community, the prolific amount of giving and support going on, and his belief that people here would rebound.

Most schools will reopen Thursday, and officials plan to set up central locations for people to file for unemployment benefits if their employer’s business was destroyed. A central location to file insurance claims is also planned.

Cassius Cash, superintendent of the sprawling Great Smoky Mountain National Park, said Tuesday’s rains helped in controlling the blaze, but he cautioned that a wet ground surface can be deceptive. Flames can still smolder and flare underneath.

Officials stressed that all but one fire in Gatlinburg was under control, and that firefighters were still in the process of containing the broader park fires. They noted that emergency crews still had a long way to go in penetrating the wildfire area.

‘You have to put aside your feelings’

In the kitschy tourist mecca of Pigeon Forge, there was a strange juxtaposition of mood early Wednesday. Even as some evacuated 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.

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 the Titanic, and the Ripley Aquarium. The smell infests your nose and works its way down to irritate your lungs.

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

Andrew Leon came up from Alpharetta to work on restoring a hotel that was 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.”

‘By the grace of God, he got out’

Dollywood — named for Dolly Parton — wasn’t damaged, but the fire was close. The attraction closed temporarily.

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

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.

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.”

‘Everything took on a reddish glow’

The fire spread quickly, she said. Just before, her husband had been working to prevent the spread of the fire, 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.

Within 20 minutes, she said, “everything took on a reddish glow. You couldn’t see the next stoplight.”

McLain is from the New Orleans area, and the disaster 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.

‘I don’t know what day it is’

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.

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

Cooper, carrying her twin 1-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.”

Wednesday morning’s rains were a thankful reprieve. But they brought with them concerns about mudslides and other dangers for the firefighters still battling the fires.

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