Death toll is 7; man is arrested for setting 2 wildfires in Smoky Mountains

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Published: Nov. 30, 2016 at 4:36 PM CST
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A mayor says three more bodies have been recovered after the wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains, bringing the death toll to seven. Meanwhile, in Asheville, N.C., a man is in custody after being accused of setting two of the wildfires.

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said Wednesday that officials believe more than 400 buildings have been damaged in the county. He also noted that three people who were trapped after the wildfires on Monday night have been rescued.

Waters did not go into details about the rescue, and said authorities have not positively identified the dead. He says search-and-rescue missions are ongoing.

Federal prosecutors accuse a man from North Carolina of setting two wildfires. The U.S. Department of Justice says Keith Eugene Mann Franklin, 49, was arrested on Wednesday on one count of destroying property by means of fire.

According to an affidavit, a wildfire was reported on Oct. 27 inside the Nantahala National Forest in Macon County. Court documents say an investigation showed the fire was intentionally set, as were five other fires nearby.

A second wildfire was reported on Nov. 22, and investigators say when they went back to the site the next day, they found a cardboard box with burned wooden matches next to it.

Those wildfires are among dozens that have burned in the South over the past several weeks as the region has been parched by drought.

Authorities say Mann admitted setting both fires. The charges against him carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Authorities say the wildfire that spread embers and flames into Gatlinburg, igniting new blazes and forcing thousands to evacuate, is now 10 percent contained.

Officials say it's the third-largest ongoing fire in the Southeast.

A Wednesday report from the federal team managing the blaze says the Chimney 2 Fire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is more than 15,600 acres - about 25 times the size of the University of Tennessee's main campus in Knoxville.

Though rain fell on Wednesday, fire officials say the wildfire threat isn't over.

Bonnie Strawser, with the team of fire officials working to suppress the blaze, said the fire "could still rear its head." Strawser said rainfall reports Wednesday night or early Thursday should provide a better picture of how much rain has fallen on the fire.

The mayor of Gatlinburg says officials are discussing re-opening the city this week after wildfires forced the evacuation of thousands of residents and tourists.

Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said Wednesday that the resort mountain city may re-open Friday so business owners can assess the damage and hopefully begin paying their employees again.

He says the evacuation orders must remain in place until then because there are still areas that haven't been searched and places where power lines are down.

More than 200 firefighters were still out battling flames and hotspots on Wednesday.

During wildfires on Monday night, many buildings in Gatlinburg were burned to their foundation. Hotel fire alarms eerily echoed through empty streets lined with burned-out cars on Tuesday evening.

The destroyed buildings include iconic homes and a resort. Other buildings and attractions remained largely intact, including the Dollywood amusement park in nearby Pigeon Forge.

Wildfires have been burning for several weeks across the drought-stricken South but Monday marked the first time homes and businesses were destroyed on a large scale.

Gatlinburg, a city that opens up to 11 million visitors annually, faces a new reality. Mayor Mike Werner, who lost his home, says his town will pull together and recover.

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