File photo. (iStock/Thinkstock)(NASHVILLE, Tenn.) — At least seven people have died from the massive eastern Tennessee wildfire that has burned more than 15,500 acres in Sevier County, officials said today.
Authorities said they are still working on identifying the deceased.
The blaze — which has devastated the cities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and surrounding areas — has also injured 53 people, scorched more than 700 homes and forced thousands to evacuate, officials said.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said that the wildfire is the state’s biggest in 100 years.
“I’ve never seen anything like this in the county, and we’ll never see anything like it again,” said Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.
The fire was exacerbated on Tuesday by what authorities have described as “hurricane-force” winds of up to 87 mph.
The heavy winds have presented a challenge to firefighters, who said that fallen trees have limited access to certain areas, according to Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller.
Though heavy rain helped suppress the fire today, it also presented new challenges, Miller said. Firefighters are now experiencing some rock and mudslides, he said.
The fire chief added that unless the rain penetrates deep into the brush fire, there is still a threat.
Over 200 firefighters remained on the ground this morning, according to Miller.
Gatlinburg mayor Mike Werner said at a news conference on Tuesday that it was a “devastating time” for the city but that its people were “strong and resilient.”
There are still areas that authorities are trying to reach, Werner said, noting that “nobody had a clue” the fire would spread “that fast.”
The blaze was “a scary sight to see,” he said, adding that “people were basically running for their lives.”
Officials from the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency have said that it is likely that 14,000 residents and visitors have been evacuated from the city of Gatlinburg alone.
Numerous roads remain closed and blocked by fallen trees and power lines as a result of the fires, officials said.
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