Search for Missing Underway After Tennessee Fires

(CN) – Local authorities said they are continuing to look for survivors of wildfires that killed 12 people and destroyed hundreds of buildings in and around the resort town of Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Officials said Thursday evening the death roll is at 12, while dozens of others have been treated at local hospitals.

The fires ignited Monday night and by Tuesday morning, more than 14,000 people had evacuated Gatlinburg alone. An evacuation order was also issued for nearby Pigeon Forge, but it has since been lifted.

Gatlinburg remained closed to the public Thursday. Officials said main roads to the city will not be re-opened until at least Monday.

A day of rain Wednesday helped put out the wildfires, but authorities said they can rekindle due to the dry ground caused by a drought.

About 700 buildings were damaged in Sevier County.

Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said during a news conference Thursday that the search is on for survivors.

“We’re never going to give up hope. I will always hang onto hope that there’s a chance of rescue,” Miller said. “But now, we are at hour 65 from the beginning of the fires. We have to come to a realization that the potential is great that it could be more of a recovery than a rescue.”

Investigators say the fires were likely “human-caused,” but they have not specifically said arson was to blame, leaving open the possibility that the fires were set unintentionally.

The wildfires were preceded by a drought that has seen 10 to 15 fewer inches of rain than normal during the past three months for much of the South.

The first victim identified was Alice Hagler, who died in her house in Gatlinburg’s Chalet Village. Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said authorities are still working to identify others killed in the wildfires.

Country music icon Dolly Parton said Wednesday that her company and foundation are establishing the My People Fund, which will pay $1,000 monthly to Sevier County families who lost their homes in the inferno.

Parton’s theme park Dollywood was threatened by the blaze but was ultimately spared.

President Barack Obama spoke with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam on Wednesday, offering support and condolences for lives lost. The White House says the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a grant to provide resources for the Gatlinburg area.

Haslam said Tuesday the Gatlinburg fire was the largest in the state in the past 100 years.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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