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Wednesday, 14 December 2016 15:07

Two charged with starting Tennessee fires

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Two juveniles have been arrested in Tennessee for allegedly starting the Chimney Tops 2 Fire, which ballooned to encompass more than 17,000 acres and led to the deaths of 14 people after hurricane-strength winds swept it through Gatlinburg and parts of Pigeon Forge Nov. 28.

The pair is being held at the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center, facing charges of aggravated arson, a Class A felony that for adult defendants carries a sentence of 15 to 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000. Aggravated arson is a crime that involves intentionally starting a fire when a person suffers “serious bodily injury as a result of the fire or explosion,” according to Tennessee law. 

Because the defendants are juveniles, their sentencing will depend mightily on how the case is prosecuted. Juveniles are sentenced differently than adults, with sentences aimed at addressing the issues that led to commission of the crime. Juveniles who serve time as a result of crimes prosecuted in juvenile court can be held only through age 19, said Sara Reynolds, youth services officer at the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center. 

“In juvenile court probably the worst thing would be a commitment to the state,” Reynolds said.  

At this point, it’s impossible to say what kind of sentence an aggravated arson charge might carry in juvenile court, Reynolds said. 

“Additional charges are being considered and all options available to the state when dealing with juveniles are on the table,” James Dunn, Tennessee Fourth District Attorney General, said in a Dec. 7 press conference. “Including the possibility of seeking a transfer of these juveniles to adult criminal court.”

Due to laws surrounding the release of information in cases involving juveniles, Dunn would not reveal any further information, such as the defendants’ genders, ages, residence or relationship to each other. However, he said, they are residents of Tennessee but not of Sevier County. 

The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that “sources familiar with the teenagers and investigation” said the defendants are boys aged 15 and 17 years old who are friends and residents of Anderson County. If that is the case, one of the defendants — the 17-year-old — could be tried as an adult because he is older than 16. 

The arrests were the result of a joint investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the National Park Service, the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. No information is being released as to the evidence that led to the arrest or, specifically, how the defendants allegedly started the fire. However, a tip line set up by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was critical to the process, Smokies Chief Law Enforcement Officer Steve Kloster said at the Dec. 7 press conference. 

“The public was crucial in responding to that tip line and giving investigators something to work with,” Kloster said. “The tip line had approximately 40 tips within just a few minutes of going online.”

According to an official with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who wished to remain anonymous, park personnel discovered struck matches discarded at intervals at the site of the fire. 

While arrests have been made, the investigation is by no means complete. Additional charges are on the table, and authorities aren’t ruling out additional arrests. 

Investigators have been working “tirelessly” since the fire began, said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn.

“This investigation is active and ongoing and we still have a lot of work to do,” Gwyn said. “Our promise is that we will do every effort to help bring closure to those who have lost so much.”

 

Making of a firestorm

The fire resulted in the deaths of 14 people, with 12 of those deaths directly caused by the fire and the remaining two indirectly related to the blaze, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said in a press conference Dec. 13. One person died of a heart attack while attempting to escape, and someone else perished in a traffic accident while evacuating, Waters said. Of the 14, 13 of the dead have been positively identified with identification likely to be finalized soon for the remaining person. 

Current estimates put the damage caused by the fire at more than $500 million, Waters said, with 2,640 structures damaged or destroyed. There are still 13 displaced people staying at a Red Cross shelter, down from 1,400 people the night of the fire. As of Dec. 12, fire fighting costs for the Chimney Tops 2 Fire totaled $7.1 million.

Some have criticized the lack of warning afforded residents of Gatlinburg the night of the fire. Chalet Village resident Michael Luciano told The Smoky Mountain News that the first warning he had of the oncoming firestorm was a small ember he spotted falling through the air outside his home, despite the fact that power was on and the news was turned on. 

However, emergency management officials laid out the situation during the Dec. 13 press conference to explain the factors limiting their ability to effectively warn people. 

The fire started Wednesday, Nov. 23, at the north spire of the Chimney Tops, Deputy Superintendent Clay Jordan said, covering about 1.5 acres when firefighters arrived. Due to oncoming darkness and rocky terrain, they had to leave it overnight and come back in the morning, when a 410-acre containment area was identified and firefighters set about creating containment lines accordingly. The area was too rugged to safely and effectively attack the fire directly, Jordan said.

By Saturday, the fire was still only 6 acres, and a four-day analysis the park requested from the U.S. Forest Service modeled slow, downhill fire growth — no mention of the windy weather that materialized Monday. On Sunday, the park requested a localized forecast from the National Weather Service, which predicted morning winds of 12 miles per hour with 25-mile-per-hour gusts growing to 20 mile-per-hour winds with 40-mile-per-hour gusts by 6 p.m. Monday. 

The winds proved much stronger. A weather station at Cove Mountain, just above Gatlinburg, measured a gust of 87 miles per hour at 6 p.m., just before the weather monitoring equipment lost power and measurements ceased. 

The winds carried embers that created spot fires as far as 3 miles away from the main fire — that’s how far the fire that was found at the Twin Creeks area Monday morning was from the existing Chimney Tops Fire. Even on Sunday, spot fires were popping up a half-mile or more from the Chimney Tops. 

“What we were observing was extraordinary fire behavior,” Jordan said. “Spot fires a half-mile or more from the fire in this part of the country in our experience is extremely rare. In fact, the incident commander had never experienced this in the Southeast in 25 years of fighting wildland fire.”

On Sunday, Jordan said, it seemed “inconceivable” that the fire would travel the roughly 5 miles necessary to impact Gatlinburg, but nevertheless the park notified the Gatlinburg Fire Department of the situation, and the city firefighters began to prepare themselves for what Fire Chief Greg Miller at the press conference called the “unlikely possibility” that the fire would enter Gatlinburg. Engines were staged, a fire break was constructed around the park boundary, and on Monday voluntary door-to-door evacuation notices were given to residents of the Mynett Park neighborhood, judged to be the most vulnerable area of the city. About 200 firefighters arrived from all over the state, the greatest callout ever assembled in Gatlinburg. 

But the wind carried the fire to burn the city from multiple ignition points in “a matter of minutes,” Miller said. 

By 6 p.m. Monday, mandatory evacuations went out to multiple neighborhoods, with the Ski Mountain Road area added by 8 p.m. But the process was complicated by falling telephone poles, damaged cell towers and an overall breakdown of communication system. Door-to-door notifications continued, with resources concentrated to the most vulnerable areas. Warning sirens went off downtown using a system intended to warn of flood danger, not fire danger. 

“As a professional emergency responder, in spite of all the lives that were saved I, along with my fellow emergency responders, will always grieve the lives lost,” Miller said. 

Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash said that, going forward, the park will work to identify lessons learned to better prepare for any similar situations in the future. But it’s possible, Jordan said, that the unique power and unpredictability of the Nov. 28 firestorm is something that could never be adequately prepared for. 

“We believe there was no way we could have controlled the fire prior to the wind event,” Jordan said. “Second, the reality is that we believe that no number of firefighters or fire engines could have stopped the spread of this fire in such extreme wind conditions.”

For now, the Sevier County community is working to move past the tragedy and rebuild its place as a travel destination for people from all over the world. 

“Sevier County is open for business, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg is open for business,” Waters said. “We encourage our visitors who love these mountains to come back.”

SMN reported the Dec. 7 press conference based on video posted by the Knoxville News-Sentinal and the Dec. 13 conference based on video streamed by WATE in Knoxville. 

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