Tennessee Wildfires Blamed for Seven Deaths

(CN) – Officials said Wednesday that seven people have died in wildfires that destroyed hundreds of buildings in and around Gatlinburg, Tenn., and forced thousands to evacuate the resort town.

The wildfires ignited Monday night, and by Tuesday morning more than 14,000 people had evacuated Gatlinburg, Tenn., alone. Mandatory evacuations were also ordered in Pigeon Forge and other areas near the Smoky Mountains National Park.

A fourth fatality was confirmed Wednesday morning, but the death toll rose to seven by the afternoon after the discovery of three more bodies.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday it was the biggest fire in the state in the past 100 years. It was 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 fires destroyed at least 150 buildings in Gatlinburg alone, and more than 400 structures in Sevier County.

Investigators say they think the wildfires were “human caused,” but did not specify whether that meant arson, and said the matter was still under investigation.

Overnight rain brought some relief Wednesday morning, as firefighters continued monitoring hotspots near the mountains.

A mandatory evacuation order remains in place for Gatlinburg, but the order was lifted in nearby Pigeon Forge.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday that a number of roads in the area remain closed due to fallen trees and power lines.

Country music icon Dolly Parton said in a statement Tuesday that she is “heartbroken” over the devastation.

“I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe,” Parton said. “It is a blessing that my Dollywood theme park, the DreamMore Resort and so many businesses in Pigeon Forge have been spared.”

Dollywood will reopen Friday.