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VOL. 131 | NO. 239 | Thursday, December 1, 2016

Gatlinburg Mayor Talks of Re-Opening City After Wildfires

By ADAM BEAM and JONATHAN MATTISE, Associated Press

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (AP) – Buddy McLean watched from a deserted Gatlinburg street as flames surrounded his 26-acre hotel nestled in the mountains of eastern Tennessee.

There was nothing he could do.

The Lodge at Buckberry Creek was one of hundreds of buildings destroyed in the area by a deadly wildfire fanned by hurricane-force winds. The blaze killed four people, injured dozens more and turned a usually bustling tourist destination into a ghost town. Thousands of people were displaced Wednesday, nervously awaiting word of when they can get back in the city to see if they still have homes.

"I have 35 employees," McLean said. "All of them lost their jobs overnight."

There were severe thunderstorm warnings for the area as a line of storms moved across the Southeast. Those storms spawned suspected tornadoes in parts of Alabama and Tennessee, killing five people and injuring more than a dozen.

Officials in the Gatlinburg area were worried about mudslides, rock slides and high winds knocking trees onto power lines, perhaps creating new fires similar to the deadly ones that sparked Monday night. Search and rescue teams were still scouring areas they couldn't reach because they were blocked by trees and power lines.

More fires broke out in Gatlinburg overnight, but more rains offered some relief.

"The rain is going to help with the suppression of some of the active fires. The rain may help prevent some of the further brush fires. But I also want to say that unless that rain penetrates deep enough into that duff, into that leaf clutter, then those hotspots can still arise," Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said.

The Rocky Top Sports World complex on the outskirts of town was serving as a shelter. Wolf McLellan stumbled into the facility after a day of wandering the streets. He was forced to evacuate a motel where he was staying. He grabbed his guitar, two computers and his social security card and tried to flee with his dog, Kylie.

"She was too scared to move with the smoke and sirens and she just stood there. I didn't want to drag her. I couldn't drag her," he said. "I figured the humane thing to do would be to just cut her loose."

Officials in nearby Pigeon Forge lifted the evacuation order there, but the order still stood in Gatlinburg, where more than 14,000 residents and tourists were forced to leave.

Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said officials were discussing re-opening the city on Friday so business owners can assess damage and hopefully begin paying their employees again.

"You really can't let everybody in yet because there are still areas that haven't been searched, there are still areas where electric lines are down, power poles are down," he said. "Search and safety is basically our main goal. We want to get back open as soon as we can."

The fire destroyed at least 150 buildings in the Gatlinburg area but left others intact. Almost nothing remained of the Castle, perhaps the largest and most iconic home overlooking Gatlinburg. Entire churches disappeared. So did the Cupid's Chapel of Love wedding venue, though its managers promised to move scheduled weddings to a sister venue, Chapel at the Park.

Officials surveying damage said the Westgate Smoky Mountain Resort & Spa – with more than 100 buildings – is likely gone.

The flames reached the doorstep of Dollywood, the theme park named after country music legend and local hero Dolly Parton, but the park was spared any significant damage and will reopen Friday.

Much remained uncertain for a region that serves as the gateway into the Great Smoky Mountains, the country's most visited national park.

At The Lodge at Buckberry Creek, McLean isn't giving up.

His grandfather bought the land in 1945, and he developed a subdivision on part of the land and built the hotel 14 years ago on the mountainside to take advantage of the views of Mt. LeConte.

In one night, it was gone.

McLean said four rooms were booked and another 15 people were having a private dinner when the hotel's chef and event coordinator told everyone to evacuate. McLean said he has not seen the property yet.

"We're going to plan to rebuild," he said.

___

Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press writers Steve Megargee, Kristin M. Hall and Erik Schelzig in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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