The country music legend Dolly Parton has pledged to give $1,000 a month to people made homeless by the deadly wildfires that have ravaged a swathe of her home state of Tennessee.
The death toll from the fires across the Smoky Mountains rose to 11 on Thursday, according to Dean Flener of the state’s emergency management agency, the worst loss of civilian life from a single US wildfire in 13 years.
Although 24 hours of heavy rain had helped to dampen the fire known as Chimney Tops 2, large parts of the region have been devastated with more than 700 homes and businesses destroyed.
Police and fire crews said the search for victims would begin again on Friday.
Parton, whose hometown and Dollywood theme park is close to the centre of the fires, made her announcement with a video on Twitter.
She said she had asked her suite of entertainment companies to help her set up a “my People Fund” to provide aid for people left bereaved and homeless by the fires.
“I have always believed that charity begins at home,” Parton said. “And that’s why I’ve asked my Dollywood Companies — including the Dollywood Theme Park; the DreamMore Resort; my dinner theater attractions including Dixie Stampede and Lumberjack Adventure; plus my Dollywood Foundation to help me establish a ‘My People Fund.’
“We want to provide a hand up to all those families that have lost everything in the fires,” she said. “And to recover, we want to make sure that the Dollywood Foundation provides $1,000 a month to all of those families that have lost their homes in the fires until they get back up on their feet. I know it has been a trying time for my people, and this assistance will help.”
Parton, who grew up close to the site of Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, signed off her message by saying: “We hope you’ll soon visit the Tennessee mountains and experience the Tennessee spirit.”
Authorities said three more bodies had been found during searches of the area on Thursday, bringing the total of deaths to 10.
A hotline was set up for people to report missing friends and relatives. After following up on dozens of leads, authorities said many of those people had been accounted for. They did not say whether they believe anyone else was still missing or may have died.
“I think it’s fair to say that the search is winding down,” said Sevier county mayor Larry Waters said. “And hopefully we will not find any more [bodies].”
Fire officials warned people not be complacent despite the heavy rain because months of drought had left the ground bone-dry and wildfires can rekindle.
The trouble began Monday when a wildfire, likely caused deliberately, 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,” said Gatlinburg fire chief Greg Miller.
More than 14,000 residents and visitors in Gatlinburg were forced to evacuate, and the busy tourist town 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,” said the town’s mayor, Mike Werner. “We’re gonna be back better than ever. Just be patient.”