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Mayor: Death toll from Tennessee wildfires increases

Tenn. wildfires

GATLINBURG, Tenn. -- A Tennessee mayor says that the death toll from wildfires earlier this week has increased to 10, and the injured to 80. 

Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said Thursday afternoon that authorities had discovered three additional deaths. He did not release any details about the fatalities and said authorities are still working to positively identify the remains.

Hurricane-force winds fueled wildfires on Monday night, forcing more than 14,000 residents and tourists to evacuate the city of Gatlinburg. 

Parts of Gatlinburg look like a scorched ghost town, with more than 150 destroyed homes and businesses. An official with the Tennessee Department of Transportation shot video showing the damage.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has declared a state of emergency to expedite aid to victims of the wildfires and storms ravaging eastern Tennessee.

The Republican governor on Thursday suspended certain state laws and eased other requirements to help victims of the storms. He gave the commissioner of Commerce and Insurance discretion to assist policyholders even when premium payments have been delayed, and waived fees for the issuance of driver’s licenses and other identification for victims of the disasters. His order freed up medical professionals licensed in other states to help Tennessee victims.

Wildfires descended on the city of Gatlinburg and the surrounding area Monday night and were followed by tornadoes and other destructive storms in eight eastern Tennessee counties. 

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“Some of the structures along this road look fine, but then as you get a little bit higher, it tells another story,” said the official in the video.

The flames hollowed out homes and buildings. 

Many people forced to evacuate sought refuge in Red Cross shelters. Greg Lanham and his family spent the night in one shelter after escaping the fire. 

Scorched ghost town in parts of Tennessee

“You’re looking out of every window you can, you’re watching for a glow in the distance. There’s smoke everywhere,” Lanham told CBS News. 

The terrifying scene as they left was similar to what many encountered on the evacuation route. Thick smoke blanketed the roads as the flames crept closer. 

“Is it going to reach this? Is it going to explode while we’re in traffic? What’s going to happen? You just don’t know,” Lanham said. 

Shari and Daniel Deason moved to Gatlinburg from Mississippi about a month and a half ago. They only had time to grab their 14-month-old son, William, and his diaper bag.

“We don’t know what to do, or what we’re going to do if we don’t have anywhere to go,” Shari Deason said. 

Officials say more than 400 emergency workers from multiple departments are working on putting out the fire and clearing debris.

“I’ve gotten calls from the governor of every surrounding state saying how can we help,” said Gov. Haslam.  

Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner is trying to aid his community, while dealing with his own devastation. “I had an opportunity to drive through town and confirm the fact that my house was gone and… my business of 31 years is gone,” Werner said.