ENVIRONMENT

Tennessee Wildfire Death Toll Hits 13

At least 85 people were injured and 1,000 structures damaged, authorities said Friday.
The remains of a van and home smolder in the wake of a wildfire Wednesday in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
The remains of a van and home smolder in the wake of a wildfire Wednesday in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Thirteen people died in the devastating wildfire that engulfed the Eastern Tennessee resort towns of Sevier County earlier this week, authorities confirmed Friday.

At least 85 people were transported to the hospital for fire-related injuries, though many have been released, according to Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.

Authorities released the identifies of six of the 13 killed: John Tegler, 71, and his wife, Janet, 70, of Canada; Jon Summers and his wife, Janet, both 61, of Memphis, Tennessee; Alice Hagler, 70, of Gatlinburg, Tennessee; and May Vance, 75, also of Gatlinburg, who authorities believe died of a heart attack while trying to escape the fire. Local NBC affiliate WBIR compiled a list of those who have been reported missing.

While a complete “soft search” of the affected areas is expected to be completed by late Friday, Waters acknowledged that more bodies could be found.

“I want to make it very clear to everyone that this does not mean the search is complete,” he said.

Questions arose at a press conference on Friday about the efficiency of the warning system, though most went unanswered.

Notification of a mandatory evacuation was sent to cell phones in the affected area at 9:04 p.m. Monday, said John Mathews, emergency management director for Sevier County. Some people say they never received a notification, while others argue that the mandatory evacuation should have been sent earlier.

“If people did not receive the message we sent out, then of course we’re dissatisfied,” Mathews said Friday, adding that power outages and cell tower blockages may have contributed to the absent notifications.

Cassius Cash, superintendent of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, denied that anyone “dropped the ball” in allocating the appropriate resources to contain the original flames from Sunday. He said high winds that were forecast to arrive Monday afternoon came Sunday night, greatly expediting the spread of the wildfire. 

“We’re going to evaluate ... the responses and what went on, but this is not the appropriate time,” Waters said. “We’re working on getting folks help right now and getting people back into their properties.”

Sevier County officials created an interactive map to show which structures had been destroyed or damaged by the fire (below). Green circles indicate the structure was affected by the fire, yellow mean minor damage, orange show major damage, and red mean the structure was destroyed.

“This is the largest fire in the last 100 years in the state of Tennessee,” Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said at a press conference Tuesday evening. The wildfire burned over 17,000 acres and left more than 1,000 homes and businesses severely damaged or destroyed.

Cash said Thursday that fire investigators have determined the forest fire component of the wildfire was “human-caused,” though no other details have been released. Other areas of the fire, however, were natural and possibly stemmed from trees falling on power lines during Monday night’s high winds.

“We’ll be okay,” said Mayor Mike Werner of Gatlinburg, the town hit the hardest by the fire. “We’re mountain-tough and we have strong, strong faith in God.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) added on Friday, “The fire is terrifying and impressive; the response is even more impressive.”

People tweeted images of charred structures and landscapes consumed by the fire:

This post has been updated with new information on evacuation warnings and deaths related to the fire.

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