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Death toll rises in Gatlinburg fires as search for survivors slows

“We’re absolutely distraught”

GATLINBURG, Tenn. —With 10 people confirmed dead, the search for survivors of devastating fires in Gatlinburg began to wind down on Thursday even as thousands of residents remained unable to return to their homes.

Some area attractions near the Smokey Mountain tourist mecca were reopening as the smoke cleared from the deadly blaze. The popular Dollywood amusement park in Pigeon Forge was set to reopen Friday.

But even as the recovery moved forward, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters emphasized what a “depressing, distressing time it is for us.

“We’re absolutely distraught,” he told reporters.

The death toll has gradually climbed since the fast-moving fire roared into Gatlinburg Monday night, propelled by powerful winds. The number of injured now stands at 80 and some 700 homes were either damaged or destroyed.

Country music superstar Dolly Parton, whose Dollywood narrowly escaped fire damage, pledged to donate $1,000 a month to families that lost their homes to the fires. The money will come from her foundation, which is funded in part from donations that have been pouring in.

“I’ve always believed charity begins at home, and my home is someplace special,” said Parton, who grew up in the area.

The fires were largely out, quenched by a welcome rainfall on Wednesday, But officials cautioned there could still be hot spots. The region – like most of the Southeast – has been parched by a drought that’s sparked dozens of wildfires from North Carolina to Georgia.

On Thursday, officials sounded a hopeful note that the body count might be ending. Waters said searches in the hardest-hit areas of Gatlinburg and the surrounding Sevier County were expected to finish Thursday evening.

“A huge percentage of the city and county have been searched,” Waters said.

Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller told reporters gathered at a staging area on Thursday that several days have now elapsed since the fire flared. As time passes, the hopes of finding survivors dwindles.

“I will always hold on to hope, but we’re in hour 65 of this,” Miller said.

Search efforts are continuing in the Great Rocky Mountain National Park, but that area is largely uninhabited.

“There are not many structures,” Cassius Cash, superintendent of the park, said.

John Mathews, the emergency management director for Sevier County, agreed.

“We’re winding down on the count,” he said.

Officials said they will open parts of Gatlinburg to homeowners, renters and business owners on a limited basis starting Friday.

Tourism is the life blood of this region. And nearby Pigeon Forge was clearly coming back to life. Attractions such as the Hatfield and McCoy show and the Christmas Opry advertised on their big neon signs that they were still open.

Ken Walton, 65, was picking up a cup of coffee before returning to work as the maintenance man at a trailer park.

He had evacuated due to smoke in Monday, having to wear a cloth across his face it was so bad.

“The wind was blowing fire through the air,” he said.

But he returned to an unscathed home Tuesday, thankful.

In general, Pigeon Forge suffered only fraction of the damage seen in nearby Gatlinburg. It is open for business. There were some destroyed homes and some power outages and trees and limbs downed.

But there was some worry about what the news of the wildfires would do to business.

The front desk worker at the Hampton Inn said some tourists called to cancel reservations. Meanwhile, insurance companies were calling to find rooms for displaced people.

Jim Ross, 55, of Florida, said his family considered heading to Chattanooga instead but decided to take a chance with Pigeon Forge.

“We saw the lumberjack show,” he said. And they were planning to go to Dollywood when it opens Friday.

But things were bleaker just up the road in Gatlinburg.

Sitting among scores of people in a makeshift shelter there, Janie Thompson, 62, worried what the future might hold. The woman who works at McDonalds doesn’t have a lot in the world and she feared that the cabin she rented and her belongings might be gone.

“I just got my dog and the clothes on my back,” she said. “A lot of my people, eight dollar an hour people, are homeless.”

She was happy to hear that Dolly Parton was offering some financial assistance.

“That would help me out a lot,” she said. “It could help a lot of people.”

She had been at the shelter - the converted Rocky Top rec center- since Monday night, and the days were getting longer, little more than cigarette after cigarette.

The shelter was becoming its own little community as people struck up friendships and shared their stories. The place now has a phone charging area, a medical room (with a sign that said “you’re here, you’re safe”) and a big play area for the kids. Not to mention enough donated food to fill a cargo plane.

The children were among the most devastated emotionally. When 7-year-old Angel Lively fled her home with her family, they went to a hotel. But then that hotel has to also be evacuated.

“So she suffered that horror twice,” said her grandmother, Carol Reynolds

When Angel arrived at the shelter, she was among several children who were scared.

“They huddled in corners, scared that the fire would come down here and get them. They wouldn’t talk,” said Reynolds.

By Thursday Angel was running around the place in her pink socks.

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