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Crews discovered the remains of three more people as they searched the rubble of wildfires that torched hundreds of homes and businesses near the Great Smoky Mountains, bringing the death toll to 10, officials have said. Authorities set up a hotline for people to report missing friends and relatives, and after following up on dozens of leads, they said many of those people had been accounted for. They did not say whether they believe anyone else is still missing or may have died. "I think it's fair to say that the search is winding down," Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said yesterday. "And hopefully we will not find any more." He said the searches would likely be completed today. Nearly 24 hours of rain on Wednesday helped dampen the wildfires, but fire officials struck a cautious tone, saying people shouldn't have a false sense of security because months of drought have left the ground bone dry and wildfires can rekindle. The trouble began Monday when a wildfire, likely caused by a person, spread from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into the tourist city of Gatlinburg 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 have been damaged. "Gatlinburg is the people, that's what Gatlinburg is.
It's not the buildings, it's not the stuff in the buildings," Mayor Mike Werner said. "We're gonna be back better than ever. Just be patient." Starting today, homeowners, business owners, renters and lease holders will be allowed to go see most of their Gatlinburg properties, said City Manager Cindy Cameron Ogle. The city is hoping to open main roads to the general public on Wednesday. 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. About 10,000 acres, or 15 square miles, burned inside the country's most visited national park. Another 6,000 acres were scorched outside of the park.
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