Officials drop arson charges against teens after massive wildfir - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Officials drop arson charges against teens after massive wildfire in Gatlinburg

Posted: Updated:

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WDRB) -- Arson charges against two juveniles accused of causing a wildfire that killed more than a dozen people and devastated Gatlinburg and other parts of East Tennessee have been dismissed by Tennessee officials

The Fourth District Attorney General's Office made the announcement on June 30, months after the teens were charged with aggravated arson back in December. Investigators say the fire was started in an area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park known as Chimney Tops on Nov. 23, 2016. 

The massive blaze scorched a path through the park and surrounding Sevier County. Gale force winds spread the fire in a wild, erratic path for 24 hours. Fourteen people died. More than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed, causing an estimated $1 billion in damages. 

According to a news release, the teens were cleared after a 7-month investigation  involving thousands of investigative hours and over 100 interviews with witnesses and experts from multiple states, and concluded Mother Nature was responsible for the rapid spread of the fire.

The release states that "the unprecedented, unexpected and unforeseeable wind event that started in the early morning hours of November 28, 2016, approximately four and a half days after the initial origin of the fire, was the primary reason the Chimney Tops II fire traveled outside the park into Gatlinburg."

Officials say it's unlikely that the fire would have spread to Gatlinburg if not for the 80 mph wind speeds. 

For that reason, "the State is unable to prove the criminal responsibility of two juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt for the devastation that occurred outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park." 

Officials also determined that there were other fires with multiple points of origin, making it "impossible to prove which fire may have caused the death of an individual or damage to a particular structure."

The prosecution was further complicated by the existence of two nearly identical legal documents that called into question the state's jurisdiction to prosecute criminal acts that occur wholly within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

"Therefore, the decision to prosecute any individuals alleged to have caused a fire within the is now within the purview of the United States Department of Justice," according to the news release. 

Meanwhile, although many buildings and attractions were unscathed, officials say tourism has taken a hit because people still believe there's a lot of damage. Officials say tourism over the winter and spring was slower than normal. 

At Aunt Mahalia’s candy store in Gatlinburg, for example, business is down about 30 percent, with noticeably fewer weekend customers, according to assistant manager Scott Rowe.

The devastating November wildfires will never be forgotten, but the construction and rebuilding process continues. 

“It's going to be a new Gatlinburg," said one lifelong resident. 

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said its investigation into the fire is still open.

Related Stories:

Copyright 2017 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.

  • Sign Up for WDRB's Sports Newsletter

    * denotes required fields

    Thank you for signing up! You will receive a confirmation email shortly.
Powered by Frankly
All content © Copyright 2000 - 2017 WDRB. All Rights Reserved. For more information on this site, please read our Privacy Policy, and Terms of Service, and Ad Choices.