GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Alice Hagler’s family hoped that she’d made it out of her Gatlinburg cabin — that maybe a neighbor had grabbed her after she’d called her son to tell him that the fire roaring into the area had started burning her home.
It wasn’t to be. They were heartbroken Wednesday evening when officials told them that they found the 70-year-old’s body — one of at least seven people killed in a wildfire that spread with little warning from the Great Smoky Mountains into and around the eastern Tennessee resort community this week.
Firefighters and other responders are extending their search into arching previously inaccessible burned areas, as several families wait for news about relatives they say have been missing since the fire blew into inhabited areas Monday.
One of Hagler’s sons, Lyle Wood, says the family is mourning her and trying to figure out the next steps for his brother, who lived with Hagler but wasn’t home when the fire came.
“The last phone call she made to my brother was the fact that she was really scared and frantic because the house was actually on fire at that point,” Wood said Thursday. “Our hope was that maybe she’d be one of the ones that was found safe.”
“It’s a hard thing. … She was an amazing woman who loved a lot.”
Authorities have yet to publicly identify the seven who died. The blazes scorched thousands of acres in the resort-heavy area, burning more than 700 buildings in Sevier County, including about 300 in Gatlinburg alone, and injuring at least 74 people, officials said.
Several families are still hoping their missing loved ones are OK.
“Our search and rescue teams are going out house by house,” Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said Wednesday. “Right now, search and rescue is our main challenge.”
Authorities continue to block access to the city, from which about 14,000 residents and tourists were evacuated Monday.
The fires that reached Gatlinburg began days earlier on a trail in the mountains 10 miles south of the city, National Park Service spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. But strong winds that began Sunday helped the fire spread into the Gatlinburg area on Monday.
Investigators believe the trail fire was “human caused,” Soehn said, without offering further information, but it’s still under investigation.
Wildfires have burned in parts of the Southeast for weeks, fueled by the region’s worst drought in nearly a decade.