The death toll from wildfires in a popular tourist area in the southeastern US state of Tennessee has risen to 13,authorities said on Friday, with the search for victims continuing.
Twelve of the deaths were directly related to the blaze and one person died of a heart attack while fleeing, said Larry Waters, mayor of Sevier County, which includes the city of Gatlinburg, gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, reports BSS.
The situation is “distressing and saddening to all,” Waters said at a news conference. “I can’t describe the feelings we have over this tragedy.”
High winds and parched vegetation caused by the worst drought in nearly a decade provided fuel for the fires in the eastern part of Tennessee. Thousands were forced to evacuate.
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.
Waters added that about 1,000 structures were damaged and that authorities were looking for additional victims. Eighty-six people were treated for fire-related injuries, with most already discharged.
Parton announced the creation of a relief fund for those in Sevier County who lost their homes, with $1,000 a month going to each family for up to six months. Sixteen government agencies were working on blaze-related efforts, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said.
“I have got phone calls from President Obama and President-elect Trump,” he added.
The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) said the state “continues to experience other wildfire threats and drought conditions, even with the recent heavy rains.”
The fire broke out Monday in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and rapidly swept into Gatlinburg, pushed by winds that reached 87 miles per hour (140 kilometers per hour).