USA KNOXVILLE, Tenn. Nearly an inch of rain fell in the Tennessee mountains as of Sunday afternoon, helping to suppress the blazes that continued to burn in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park after a firestorm swept through Gatlinburg on Monday.
The death toll of the inferno rose to 14 Sunday evening, with the National Park Service confirming that Elaine Brown, 81, of Sevierville had been killed.
Officials said Brown died as a result of a multiple vehicle accident on Wears Valley Road while trying to flee the fire.
To date, there have been 134 confirmed injuries due to the fire and 1,684 structures have been damaged.
“The rain is doing wonders knocking down the fire behavior,” said Mike Proud, an incident meteorologist from South Carolina who was stationed in Pigeon Forge. “(It’s) cooling some of the warm spots, but we still expect bigger logs and stumps to retain heat.”
Meteorologists forecast strong wind gusts at speeds of 40-50 mph at higher elevations beginning Sunday morning. Around 2:30 p.m. ET, Proud said firefighters stationed at the 3,000- to 4,000-foot elevation reported average wind speeds of 15 to 20 mph, with gusts around 35 mph. But due to the rain, the wind “isn’t such a factor,” Proud said.
“We haven’t had any reports of any debris issues. The rain has slowed down here, so it’s a really nice light, steady rain, which is allowing it to soak in, and that will help cool any hot spots that are out there and some of the smaller fuels at this point.”
The wind and rain also helped improve the area’s air quality, pushing out much of the smoke that had settled in.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation reported the air quality in Knoxville, Chattanooga and the Great Smoky Mountains as “green” or posing “little or no risk.”
“This rain is really helping, and they’re going to take advantage of that and get these hot spots out as much as they can,” park spokesman Warren Bielenberg said Sunday. “This is really an important time. We can make a lot of headway on hot spots in the area and get those knocked down and then hopefully start sending folks home from here pretty soon.”
Demobilizing the 622 firefighters at Chimney Tops and the 91 assigned to the Cobbly Nob fire could begin midweek if everything goes well, he said.
The Chimney Tops fire, which had burned 17,006 acres, remained at 38% contained Sunday morning. The nearby Cobbly Nob fire was upgraded to 41% contained, with 803 acres burned.
Another batch of rain was expected to move into the area Monday evening, bringing another three-quarters to one inch, said Meteorologist Jeremy Buckles, with the National Weather Service in Morristown, Tenn. Weather stations inside the park recorded 0.32 inches at Newfound Gap and 0.39 inches at Cades Cove. Newfound Gap also recorded 0.7 inches of snow, Buckles said.
While the rain was helpful, both Buckles and Bielenberg warned that they will need more assistance from Mother Nature to keep the momentum going.
“Even though (we’ve been) having this heavy rain, it took many months for these large dead and downed trees to dry out, so it’s going to take almost and equal amount of rain to get the moisture back up,” Bielendberg said. “The other main thing now is hazardous tree removal along the roads and watching with the rain, the potential for mudslides. Because there’s no vegetation to hold the soil now, if we get really heavy rains, that’s a potential hazard.”
The fire began at Chimney Tops in the national park nearly two weeks ago, before strong winds swept the blaze down the mountain and into the small tourist city of Gatlinburg. The fires claimed 14 lives and damaged or destroyed more than 1,400 buildings across Sevier County.
Eleven of the victims, including two children, had been identified by authorities as of Sunday morning. They included Bradley Phillips, 59; the Rev. Edward Taylor, 85, who has been widely credited with helping kick off the tourist town’s wedding-chapel industry; and Constance Reed, 34, and her daughters, Chloe, 12, and Lily 9.
Alice Hagler, who had gone missing from Chalet Village, was found in that neighborhood along with Memphis couple Jon and Janet Summers, both 61, and Canadian vacationers John Tegler, 71, and Janet Tegler, 70. May Vance died of a heart attack due to smoke inhalation while fleeting the fire.
Another 100 people were treated at LeConte Medical Center for fire-related injuries. More than 14,000 residents were evacuated Monday evening.
Authorities did not provide a list of those still missing, but a hotline manned by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation at 1-800-TBI-FIND was helping agents track down more than 150 leads.
City officials continued to allow property owners and renters return to their homes and businesses between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.