Seven people have died in the US southeast as wildfires blazed across a mountainous tourist region, forcing thousands to evacuate and destroying or damaging hundreds of structures, US media reported on Wednesday.
High winds and parched vegetation caused by the worst drought in nearly a decade provided fuel for the fires that burned in the eastern part of Tennessee, threatening two tourist resort town, reports BSS.
The seven dead have not been identified, however, the authorities said three were found in a home, a fourth in a burned-out hotel and three more in the same neighborhood, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported. Forty-five people had been treated at an area hospital, officials said.
The fires burned to the doorstep of a well-known theme park, Dollywood, founded by country music legend Dolly Parton, located in the touristic hamlet of Pigeon Forge.
The town’s authorities have lifted a mandatory evacuation, while the restriction remains in place for nearby Gatlinburg, a city seven miles (11 kilometers) southeast, which serves as a gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The towns are both located in Sevier County, whose mayor, Larry Waters, said on Wednesday afternoon that 700 homes and businesses have been burned this week, the News Sentinel said.
Of those, 300 buildings were inside Gatlinburg’s city limits. More than 14,000 of the city’s residents and visitors were believed to have been evacuated from the Gatlinburg alone, officials reported Tuesday.
“I have been watching the terrible fires in the Great Smoky Mountains and I am heartbroken,” Parton, 70, said Tuesday. “I am praying for all the families affected by the fire and the firefighters who are working so hard to keep everyone safe.”
Dollywood will remain closed until 2:00 pm (1900 GMT) Friday, while the Great Smoky Mountains — the most visited national park in the United States — said it had closed all park facilities and many trails.
Twenty-six active fires have burned nearly 12,000 acres (4,855 hectares) across the state, Tennessee’s Department of Agriculture reported Wednesday.
A temporary flight restriction remains in effect in the area and numerous roads are closed or blocked by fallen trees and power lines, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said.
Meanwhile, at least eight counties experienced severe weather overnight, including tornado touchdowns. The storm systems killed at least two, the agency said.