Tennessee wildfires death toll rises to 7, search-and-rescue missions ongoing

Burned structures are seen from a National Guard helicopter near Gatlinburg, TN, Nov. 29. Thousands of people raced through a hell-like landscape to escape wildfires that killed seven people and destroyed hundreds of homes. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee mayor says three more bodies have been recovered after the wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains, bringing the death toll to seven.

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters says Wednesday officials believe more than 400 buildings have been damaged in the county. He also notes three people who were trapped after the wildfires Monday night have been rescued.

The three adult sons are hospitalized in critical but stable condition and their parents are missing after the family fled from wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

A statement from the Summers family through the Vanderbilt University Medical Center says Wesley, Jared and Branson remain in hospital care. They are asking for prayers that their parents, Jon and Janet, are found.

Officials have said they have not positively identified any of the seven dead. Search-and-rescue missions are ongoing.

Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner says the resort mountain city may re-open Friday so business owners can assess the damage and hopefully begin paying their employees again.

He says the evacuation orders must remain in place until then because there are still areas that haven’t been searched and places where power lines are down.

The wildfires that have been spreading embers and flames into the popular tourist town since Monday night are 10 percent contained, as of Wednesday night.

The federal team managing the blaze says it’s the third-largest ongoing fire in the Southeast.

The team’s latest report says the Chimney 2 Fire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is more than 15,600 acres – about 25 times the size of the University of Tennessee’s main campus in Knoxville.

Though rain has fallen Wednesday, fire officials say the wildfire threat isn’t over.

Bonnie Strawser, with the team of fire officials working to suppress the blaze, says the fire “could still rear its head.” Strawser says rainfall reports Wednesday night or early Thursday should provide a better picture of how much rain has fallen on the fire.

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