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Resident Mark Rowlett finds a high vantage point to survey the damage to structures and woodlands as smoke fills the air and surrounds businesses and resorts in the wake of a wildfire November 30, 2016 in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Seven people have died as wildfires raging in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee continued spreading, authorities said Wednesday.
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters confirmed three new deaths at a news conference Wednesday afternoon. No identities were released because the victims’ families hadn’t been notified.
“We certainly want to pray for those families, the folks involved in the fatalities,” Waters said. “We continue to try to identity them. We haven’t been able to yet.”
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A firefighter suffered minor injuries, and 53 people have been treated at LaConte Medical Center, Waters said. He didn’t know the conditions of the patients, but he said “many of those have been released.”
Incident commanders said the blazes started with the human-caused Chimney 2 Fire, which was reported in the park a week ago. By Monday, the region’s prolonged drought and extreme winds were causing the fire to spit out embers that quickly ignited numerous new fires, they said.
Fire commanders said Wednesday night that more than 17,000 acres have been burned in the area, with much of the charred landscape on national parklands. More than 700 structures in Sevier County have been damaged or destroyed, about 300 of them in Gatlinburg, and as many as 14,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes, authorities said.
The main fire remained only 10 percent contained, fire commanders said.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Waters said. “This was a perfect storm.”
Major threatened areas include Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, popular resort towns that lead into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood, the theme park named for country music superstar Dolly Parton.
The park wasn’t damaged, a spokesman said, but the fire was perilously close.
Parton, a native of Sevier County, had released a public service announcement with Smokey Bear on Sunday just hours before the wildfires erupted. She warned of forest fires and troubling drought conditions.