So far, this week’s tragic Tennessee wildfires have caused at least seven deaths, injured at least 50 more, and damaged or destroyed over 700 structures, a good portion of them in the city of Gatlinburg. And while there isn’t question as to how damaging the fires have been, the reason behind the Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg fires remains a mystery. But state officials, speaking to reporters on Wednesday afternoon, believe that the fires may have been man-made in nature.
Since the Tennessee wildfires first broke out earlier this week, the Inquisitr has been providing up-to-date coverage on the tragedy, including early reports on several blazes in the Gatlinburg area. The fires spread at a fantastic pace on Monday, aided by winds reaching speeds of close to 90 mph, and kept spreading throughout Sevier County on Tuesday. And while several brush fires had flared up that evening, there was “some relief” when rains poured down on Wednesday.
Despite that, and the fact that officials are working overtime to organize search-and-rescue missions in the affected areas, there are still some parts of Sevier County that are unreachable to rescuers. It isn’t sure yet how many people are missing in connection with the fires.
At this point, officials believe that the Tennessee wildfires may have been man-made, though they aren’t elaborating any further on the issue. Speaking to the Washington Post late Wednesday afternoon, Great Smoky Mountains National Park superintendent Cassius Cash simply said that the blazes were “likely to be human-caused.” A spokeswoman for the park, Dana Soehn, said almost exactly the same thing to WREG, also choosing to remain as succinct as possible in her statements. Park officials are currently investigating into the matter.
The historic levels of damage from the Tennessee wildfires caused Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam to describe the event as the worst wildfire the state has seen in 100 years, according to ABC News.
Cash also told USA TODAY in an earlier interview that the fires were the worst he’s ever experienced in his years of service.
“In my 25 years of federal service, I’ve participated in many fires, but none of that could have prepared me for this.”
Despite park officials asserting that the Tennessee wildfires were caused by man-made factors, there isn’t any one person connected to the fires. The Knoxville News Sentinel, however, reported on Tuesday that a Chattanooga man, Andrew Scott Lewis, admitted to setting three fires that damaged over 300 acres in total and cost over $250,000 in damages. The blazes resulted in a brush fire that, as of Friday, November 25, had been burning for six days, though Lewis hasn’t been linked to the far more destructive fires of this week.
A report from RT.com on Tuesday briefly cited unnamed “officials” who suspected arson as the reason behind the wildfires, but this has yet to be corroborated.
In the city of Gatlinburg, the fires were especially devastating, considering how the town draws over 11 million visitors per year due to its proximity to country music legend Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park. But in a prepared statement made on Tuesday and quoted by The Guardian, Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner expressed confidence that the city will “recover” from the tragedy.
“It’s a devastating time for us and for Gatlinburg. As I said earlier this morning, we’re strong. We’re resilient. And we’re going to make it. We’re going to pull it together and continue to make Gatlinburg the premier resort that it is.”
According to a report from USA TODAY, the Gatlinburg-area fires weren’t “all encompassing” in nature. Dollywood was relatively unscathed and is scheduled to reopen on Friday. Two other tourist attractions – the Ober Gatlinburg ski resort and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies – were also confirmed to be intact, with all their animals safe. However, officials also suggest that there’s a good chance that the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa, which houses over 100 buildings, may be “entirely destroyed” from the Tennessee wildfires, whose cause is still far from confirmed as of the moment.
[Featured Image by Brian Blanco/Getty Images]