Tennessee wildfire death toll climbs to 11

Dec 1 (Reuters) - The death toll from a devastating blaze in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee rose to 11 on Thursday, the highest loss of civilian life from a single U.S. wildfire in 13 years.

Investigators have determined the so-called Chimney Tops 2 fire, which laid waste to whole neighborhoods in the resort town of Gatlinburg earlier this week, was caused by unspecified human activity, officials said.

Total property losses from the fire have been put at more than 700 structures, with most of the destruction in Gatlinburg, known as the "gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains," in eastern Tennessee, about 40 miles (64 km) southeast of Knoxville.

A total of 11 people were killed in the fire, up from seven deaths reported Wednesday, according to Dean Flener, a spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.

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Firefighters stand by a destroyed home after a wildfire forced the mandatory evacuation of Gatlinburg, Tennessee in a picture released November 30, 2016. Tennessee Highway Patrol/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Troopers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol help residents leave an area under threat of wildfire after a mandatory evacuation was ordered in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in a picture released November 30, 2016. Tennessee Highway Patrol/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Smoke plumes from wildfires are shown in the Great Smokey Mountains near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, U.S., November 28, 2016. Photo taken November 28, 2016. Courtesy of National Park Services Staff/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
A wildfire burns on a hillside after a mandatory evacuation was ordered in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in a picture released November 30, 2016. Tennessee Highway Patrol/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Troopers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol help residents leave an area under threat of wildfire after a mandatory evacuation was ordered in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in a picture released November 30, 2016. Tennessee Highway Patrol/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Motorists stop to view wildfires in the Great Smokey Mountains near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, U.S., November 28, 2016. Photo taken November 28, 2016. Courtesy of National Park Services Staff/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: Residents including Tyler Alden (2nd R) and Caleb Graves (R) gather to clear debris and put out small fires near surrounding homes as the remains of their neighbors' homes smolder after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: The remains of a business smolders after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: (L-R) Residents Kirk Wallace, Caleb Graves and Tyler Alden gather to clear debris and put out small fires near surrounding homes as the remains of their neighbors' homes smolder after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: The remains of a home smolders after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: The remains of homes and vehicles smolder after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: Emergency vehicles race by the remains of businesses and homes as they smolder after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: (L-R) Residents Kirk Wallace, Caleb Graves and Tyler Alden gather to clear debris and put out small fires near surrounding homes as the remains of their neighbors' homes smolder after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 29: The remains of a Jeep rental business smolders after a wildfire November 29, 2016 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed after drought conditions helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 30: Smoke fills the air and surrounds businesses and resorts in the wake of a wildfire November 30, 2016 in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Drought conditions and high winds helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 30: Smoke fills the air and surrounds businesses and resorts in the wake of a wildfire November 30, 2016 in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Drought conditions and high winds helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
GATLINBURG, TN - NOVEMBER 30: Smoke fills the air and surrounds businesses and resorts in the wake of a wildfire November 30, 2016 in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area and over 100 houses and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Drought conditions and high winds helped the fire spread through the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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That made Chimney Tops 2 the nation's single deadliest wildfire since 2013, when 19 firefighters died near Prescott, Arizona.

It also ranks as the largest civilian death toll from a U.S. wildfire since 15 people, including a firefighter, were killed in Southern California's Cedar Fire in 2003, according to Jessica Gardetto, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

None of the Tennessee victims has been publicly identified, but all were presumed to be civilians, officials from the fire command center told Reuters. As many as 45 people have been reported injured.

The blaze erupted on Nov. 23, Thanksgiving eve, in a remote area of rugged terrain dubbed Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, authorities said.

Fed by drought-parched brush and trees and stoked by fierce winds, the flames spread quickly days later, igniting numerous spot fires and exploding on Monday into an inferno that roared out of the park into surrounding homes and businesses.

"The wildfire was determined to be human-caused and is currently under investigation," according to a bulletin released on Thursday by fire commanders and the National Park Service. It gave no further details.

Aerial television news footage showed the burned-out, smoking ruins of dozens of homes surrounded by blackened trees in several neighborhoods.

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November wildfires in the South
A firefighting helicopter fills its water tanks over Lake Lure on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2016 as firefighters battle the Party Rock fire near Lake Lure and Chimney Rock in North Carolina. (Jill Knight/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
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Steady rains on Tuesday night and into Wednesday helped firefighters slow the blaze, but by Thursday morning officials were still reporting no containment around a fire zone that spanned more than 17,000 acres (6,880 hectares).

"The fire is not out; it is just knocked down," fire operations chief Mark Jamieson said in the bulletin.

Some 14,000 people were forced to flee their homes at the height of the fire, and most of Gatlinburg, a city of nearly 4,000 residents, remained under mandatory evacuation on Thursday.

Evacuation orders were lifted on Wednesday for the nearby town of Pigeon Forge, home of country music star Dolly Parton's theme park, Dollywood. (Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)

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