GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) – Thunderstorms dumped much needed rain on eastern Tennessee overnight as thousands of people waited anxiously for news about their homes after wildfires tore through this resort community, killing at least four people.
Officials confirmed three new fatalities Wednesday, bringing the total to seven. A mandatory evacuation order remained in place for Gatlinburg as firefighters monitored a few remaining hot spots.
There were severe thunderstorm warnings for the area, which could bring more problems. Possible tornadoes had already swept through parts of Alabama and Tennessee, killing five people and injuring more than a dozen as a line of storms moved across the Southeast. Officials were worried about mudslides and rock slides as well as high winds knocking over trees onto power lines, perhaps creating new fires.
Tod Hyslop, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said the region had received about an inch of rain and the forecast calls for thunderstorms to pick up in the afternoon and taper off by early evening.
“The rain is going to help with the suppression of some of the active fires. The rain may help prevent some of the further brush fires. But I also want to say that unless that rain penetrates deep enough into that duff, into that leaf clutter, then those hotspots can still arise,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller.
At the Rocky Top Sports World complex on the outskirts of town, 30-year-old Wolf McLellan stumbled into the Red Cross shelter after a day of wandering the streets. He was forced to evacuate the hotel where he was staying. He grabbed his guitar, two computers and his social security card and tried to flee with his dog, Kylie.
“She was too scared to move with the smoke and sirens and she just stood there. I didn’t want to drag her. I couldn’t drag her,” he said. “I figured the humane thing to do would be to just cut her loose.”
Tracy Mayberry lives in a house next door to the motel. He said a tree fell on his house and when he went outside to investigate “the flames were right in my backyard.” He put his wife and 12-year-old into the car and left. He doesn’t know if his house is still standing.
“Everything we own is in the house. I mean, we got the clothes on my back and maybe one more outfit,” he said. “It’s been devastating, I’ll say that. It’s been crazy. All you can do is keep breathing, keep your head up and keep going.”
In Gatlinburg, many buildings were burned to their foundations. Hotel fire alarms echoed through empty streets lined with burned-out cars.
The fire picked its spots as it tore through the Gatlinburg area Monday: It destroyed at least 150 buildings but left others intact.
By Tuesday evening, almost nothing remained of the Castle, perhaps the largest and most iconic home overlooking Gatlinburg. Entire churches disappeared. So did the Cupid’s Chapel of Love wedding venue, though its managers promised to move scheduled weddings to a sister venue, Chapel at the Park.
Officials surveying early damage said the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa, with more than 100 buildings, is likely entirely gone.
Fanned by hurricane-force winds Monday night, the flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the theme park in nearby Pigeon Forge named after country music legend and local hero Dolly Parton. The park was spared any significant damage and will reopen Friday.
Much remained uncertain for a region that serves as the gateway into the Great Smoky Mountains, the country’s most visited national park. Search and rescue efforts continued in areas that had been unreachable initially because of downed power lines and trees.
A somber reality set in for Gatlinburg, a city of about 4,000 residents that draws more than 11 million visitors a year. But even Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his home in the fire, remained steadfast that his city will recover.
“It’s a devastating time for us and for Gatlinburg,” Werner said. “As I said earlier this morning, we’re strong. We’re resilient. And we’re going to make it. We’re going to pull it together and continue to make Gatlinburg the premier resort that it is.”
In all, more than 14,000 residents and tourists were forced to evacuate the tourist city in the mountain.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who flew in to see the damage caused by a fire he called the largest in the state in the past 100 years, said he was struck by how some buildings were burned to the ground while others – including most of the downtown entertainment cluster – were untouched.
“It just could have been so much worse,” he said.
The governor said work would begin quickly to repair the damage to what he called “a special place in the state of Tennessee.”
Though wildfires have been burning for several weeks across the drought-stricken South, Monday marked the first time any homes and businesses were destroyed on a large scale.