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Gov. Lee declares Sevier County wildfires 'major disaster' meriting state of emergency to aid victims

The fires broke out in late March, blamed on downed power lines and driven by persistent high winds.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Lee on Wednesday formally declared last month's Sevier County wildfires to be a "major disaster," clearing the way for a speedier resolution to recovery efforts by hundreds of fire victims.

The first and costliest fire broke out shortly before lunch on March 30 in a neighborhood above Wears Valley Road in Wears Valley. A power line has been blamed for starting the fire that blazed for days and spread northward toward Pigeon Forge, consuming more than 2,000 acres.

Damage is estimated to have been more than $65 million for the fire, which raged for days. Cabins and homes were lost; fire crews also lost about half-dozens pieces of firefighting equipment.

A second fire broke out soon after in largely wooded, rugged land in Sevier County in the Seymour area. A few structures were damaged there. Downed power lines also are blamed for that fire.

Lee's declaration of a "major disaster and state of emergency" eases state regulations and rules to make it easier for victims to work with insurance companies to get reimbursement for what they've lost. It's also meant to make it easier for victims to replace state documentation such as licenses and titles they may have lost in the fires.

Lee's move also eases state rules and regulations to make it easier for people working on cleanup operations at the fire site west and south of Pigeon Forge to carry on with their work.

Credit: Gov. Bill Lee
Gov. Lee's order easing state rules to help wildfire victims.

The gubernatorial order shall remain in effect until May 14.

Earlier this month, Lee and other state officials surveyed damage from the fires, mindful of the 2016 Gatlinburg wildfire disaster that swept in from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In that fire, 14 people died and more than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed.

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