The Sevier County wildfires
Prosecutors dropped aggravated arson charges against two Anderson County juveniles alleged to have started the deadly wildfires which devastated parts of Gatlinburg and Sevier County in November of last year.
On Friday, 4th District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn released a statement announcing the charges were dropped.
Dunn said the State could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the two juveniles started the original blaze inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The National Park Service claimed the fires started at the Chimney Tops II site on Nov. 23.
“But for the wind speeds in excess of 80 miles per hour, it is highly unlikely and improbable the Chimney Tops II fire would have left the Great Smoky Mountains and reached Gatlinburg,” the release read in part.
“Because of the intervening weather event, the State is unable to prove the criminal responsibility of the two juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt…in addition to the wind, the State’s case is further complicated by the fact that there were other fires in the area and other confirmed ignition points in the Gatlinburg area from multiple downed power lines that were felled by the wind,” the release continued.
Knoxville attorney Greg Isaacs, who represented one of the juveniles, held a press conference at his office Friday afternoon.
“My client and the other juvenile, based on the proof and evidence, did not cause the death and devastation in Gatlinburg, period,” he said.
“I think people aren’t looking for scapegoats, I think they’re looking for answers. This is the beginning of answering questions that need to be answered. Hopefully this will be a step towards finding answers, closure, and healing,” Isaacs said.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with victims of Gatlinburg fires and to anyone who lost loved ones,” he said.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) led the investigation with the assistance of the National Park Service and local law enforcement.
On Friday afternoon, the National Park Service announced they would present the case to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, meaning the juveniles could still face federal charges.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office then released the following statement: “A review of evidence in this case will have to take place in order to determine whether it is appropriate to seek approval from the Attorney General to prosecute juvenile offenders in federal court.”
In the November wildfires, 14 people were killed and 175 more injured. The fires destroyed more than 2,400 structures in Gatlinburg and Sevier County.
According to Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), 14,000 people were evacuated on Nov. 28 due to the wildfires.
Financially, it is estimated that the wildfires caused an estimated $1 billion in damages.
The wildfire is among the worst and deadliest in Tennessee history.
The juveniles were charged on Dec. 7 of last year for their alleged roles in the matter.