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Sevier County Wildfire Death Toll Rises To Thirteen

Brandon Reese

Limited access to Gatlinburg began today, as property owners, business owners and residents were allowed back into the city for the first time since Monday night. Fires destroyed about 1,000 homes, businesses and structures in southern Sevier County. Twelve people have been confirmed dead as a result of the fires. Another person died of a heart attack during the city's evacuation. That death is not considered fire-related, according to Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.

Access is slowly being restored to Gatlinburg. The "Spur," U.S. 441, re-opened to limited traffic this morning. Areas around Cobbly Nob, Wears Valley and the Westgate resort are still off-limits as emergency crews wrap up assessments and initial cleanup. Access will also be limited to the hours from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. through at least Sunday.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash reports approximately 17 square miles of the park have burned since fires began last week.  Investigators say it was "likely human-caused", but would not elaborate on whether the fires were set intentionally.    

High winds and severely dry conditions fed wildfires in the Smoky Mountains National Park Monday night, and their advancement forced the evacuation of downtown Gatlinburg and parts of Pigeon Forge. At a press conference today, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said emergency response, the evacuation process and warnings sent to the public will all be evaluated to see where improvements can be made.

What we know:

-Twelve deaths have been confirmed as a result of the fires.  A thirteenth died of a heart attack.

-Approximately 85 others have been treated at hospitals, including three who were transferred to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for treatment of burns.

-The TBI is investigating 70 missing persons leads, all connected to the Sevier County fires. Officials say progress is being made and several have been found alive.

- About 4,800 people in Sevier County are still without electricity, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

-From Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller:  Most of the rain that fell on Tuesday didn't penetrate the leaf layer, which means the ground is still dry and a fire risk continues.  GSMNP Superintendent Cassius Clay says fires continue to burn in the park.   Although some hot spots still exist, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters says all remaining fires outside the park have been extinguished.

-Great Smoky Mountains National Park investigators are looking into the possibility that the Chimney Tops fire in the park "likely was human-caused".  No word yet on whether that means the fire was deliberately set.  More than 10,000 acres in the park have burned,  as well as an additional 7,000 acres outside the park boundaries.   Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) officials say it could be several days before they complete their investigation.

-Gatlinburg-Pittman High School is closed again on Friday, but officials hope it will open on Monday.