GATLINBURG, Tenn. – Cars, trucks and business vans lined up Friday on a curvy mountain road, waiting to enter the wildfire-ravaged city of Gatlinburg to get a first look at what remains of their homes and businesses.
Local officials, bowing to pressure from frustrated property owners, said they would allow people back into most parts of the city and affected parts of the county for the first time Friday morning.
Residents have to pass through a checkpoint and must show some proof of ownership or residency, Gatlinburg City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle said.
“The city is not implying that private property is safe,” she said. “People may encounter downed powerlines or other hazards.”
The wildfires in the eastern Tennessee mountains on Monday night killed 11 people and damaged hundreds of homes and businesses.
Among those anxiously waiting to return was Tracy Mayberry. He and his wife, 12-year-old son and five dogs have bounced between hotels since they were forced to evacuate their rental home Monday night. They were struggling to find a place to stay Thursday as many lodges began to discontinue the special rates for evacuees.
“It feels like Gatlinburg is more worried about how to rebuild than they are about their people,” he said.
In nearby communities, there were signs of normalcy. In Pigeon Forge, the Comedy House rented an electronic billboard message that said it was open. A hotel flyer urged guests to check out the scenic Cades Cove loop: “Take a drive and remember what you love about the Smokies!”
Dollywood, the amusement park named after Parton, will reopen Friday afternoon after it was spared any damage.
“Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Sevier County is open for business,” Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said Thursday. “We want people to know that they can visit these areas … and we encourage them to do that.”
The Associated Press was allowed access into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Thursday. A forest of bare trees standing amid a scorched landscape could be seen along with fire crews sawing up a tree stump.
In Gatlinburg, the center of the devastation, officials there hope to open the city’s main roads to the public by Wednesday.
Authorities searching the charred remains of homes and businesses said they expected to finish Friday.
Despite recent heavy rains, fire officials warned people shouldn’t have a false sense of security because months of drought have left the ground bone-dry. Wildfires can rekindle, they said.
The trouble began Monday when a wildfire, likely caused by a person, spread from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the Gatlinburg area as hurricane-force winds toppled trees and power lines, blowing embers in all directions.
“We had trees going down everywhere, power lines, all those power lines were just like lighting a match because of the extreme drought conditions. So we went from nothing to over 20-plus structure fires in a matter of minutes. And that grew and that grew and that grew,” Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller said.
More than 14,000 residents and visitors in Gatlinburg were forced to evacuate, and the typically bustling tourist city has been shuttered ever since. At least 700 buildings in the county were damaged.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash has said the fires were “likely to be human-caused” but he has refused to elaborate, saying only that the investigation continues. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are helping investigate the cause.
Authorities said they were still working to identify the dead and did not release any details about how they were killed.
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