Authorities arrested two people on Wednesday for allegedly starting the wildfire that swept through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, killing 14 people.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn said at a press conference held Dec. 7, 2016 at the Sevier County Courthouse that a joint investigation by the TBI; National Park Service; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office has resulted in aggravated arson charges being placed against two juveniles in connection with the deadly wildfire that began Nov. 23, 2016 near the Chimney Tops Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“Our promise is that we will do our very best to help bring closure to those who have lost so much,” said Gwyn.
By the morning of November 28, drought conditions and sustained winds of 20 mph caused the wildfire, known as the Chimney Top 2 Fire, to grow from just a few acres to more than 500 acres overnight. Despite fire suppression efforts, spot fires began to pop up outside the containment area, including a fire reported that morning near the Twin Creeks Pavilion off Cherokee Orchard Road in Gatlinburg. A combination of spot fires and fires started by power lines downed by fallen trees led to the erratic spread of fires through Gatlinburg and into Pigeon Forge where they threatened the Dollywood theme park and Dollywood’s Dreammore Resort. Fires also sparked up in the Wears Valley and Cobbly Nob areas.
To date, authorities have confirmed 14 fatalities, 176 injuries/illnesses, and 2,460 structures destroyed or damaged by the fires. A number of people remain missing.
Nearly 600 fire personnel are still working to contain the fires. The Chimney Top 2 Fire is estimated to be 64% contained and the Cobbly Nob Fire is estimated to be 67% contained. Fire officials reassured the public that they are confident containment lines are very secure in all the areas near homes and businesses.
Instead of bustling with tourists, the streets of Gatlinburg were busy Wednesday with utility trucks and personnel restoring power and natural gas services, and the vehicles of restoration contractors who are remediating soot and smoke damage to businesses. The sounds of heavy machinery could be heard and the occasional truck loaded with debris rumbled by. Businesses along the Parkway downtown were largely spared, as most of the fire devastation occurred to small businesses, lodging and residential areas nearby. In some areas the fire took every building in sight and in others seemed to take one and leave the next standing unscathed.
Residents were allowed to move back in their homes Wednesday, but a curfew remained in effect. The City of Gatlinburg plans to reopen to the public at 7 a.m. on December 9.
The two juveniles arrested in connection with the fire were taken into custody and transported to the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center where they await a hearing within the next 72 hours before a juvenile court judge that will determine whether they will be held with or without bond, or released.
Crimes within national parks are usually handled in federal court, however the U.S. Attorney’s Office deferred prosecution to Jimmy Dunn, district attorney for the 4th Judicial District.
“Additional charges are being considered and all options available to the state in dealing with juveniles are on the table, including the possibility of seeking a transfer of these juveniles to adult criminal court,” said Dunn.
“I want to thank everyone who responded to the National Park Service’s tip line,” said Steve Kloster, chief ranger with the National Park Service. “The public was critical in responding to that tip line and giving the investigators something to work with.”
The tip line had forty tips within minutes of going online. Authorities would not confirm if the arrests were the result of a tip. The investigation is active and ongoing.
The names and ages of the juveniles are withheld due to laws that govern juvenile court proceedings. Dunn revealed only that they are residents of Tennessee, but not Sevier County.
Sevier County has launched the official recovery website www.mountaintough.org and a hotline to serve as a single resource for information related to the recent wildfires in Sevier County. The hotline number for local residents is 2-1-1 and 865-215-4211 for callers outside the local area.
Samaritan’s Purse has set up its disaster relief unit at the First Baptist Church in Gatlinburg. Their volunteers are available to help victims of the fire sift through debris to recover keepsakes and belongings.
The aid distribution center at 149 Cates Lane in Pigeon Forge remains open with insurance companies and other services on site to assist those displaced by the fires. Additional assistance is available at the following: