Two juveniles have been charged with aggravated arson in connection with the wildfires that ravaged two East Tennessee resort towns last week, killing 14 people and leaving nearly 150 others injured and damaging or destroying more than 2,400 properties.
During an investigation involving local, state and federal agents, “information was developed that two juveniles allegedly started the fire” that roared through Great Smoky Mountains National Park before spreading into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said Wednesday in a news release.
Both were taken into custody Wednesday and are being held at the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center.
The suspects are Tennessee residents, District Attorney General Jimmy B. Dunn said at a news conference in Sevierville. No additional information about the youths was made available, including their age and gender.
“I understand that you have a lot of questions,” Dunn told reporters. “However, the law does not allow for the disclosure of additional information at this time.”
He added that additional charges “are being considered” and said the juveniles could be tried as adults.
“Will they be held responsible for those deaths of those innocent folks?” Pigeon Forge Fire Chief Tony Watson said to NBC affiliate WBIR. “That is such a tragedy.”
Karyssa Dalton told told the Associated Press that it was appropriate for the juveniles to have to answer for their alleged actions, regardless of their age.
“I mean, what if somebody came through their town, and set their town on fire, and lost their loved ones, and lost all their homes?” said Dalton, a 19-year-old whose grandmother is still missing. “It’s not fair.”
The “Chimney Tops 2” fire was first reported Nov. 23 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to the National Park Service. The wildfire exploded on Nov. 28, as massive walls of flames spread down the mountains into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge with shocking speed, according to those who fled with little more than the clothes on their backs.
The fires that engulfed the two tourist towns outside the park and shut down one of the country’s most popular natural attractions left more than 2,450 structures damaged or destroyed, most of them single-family residences. Additionally, thousands of wooded acres burned in the most-visited national park in the United States.
Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller called the devastation “unfathomable.”
Katerina Mills, a 45-year-old who has been staying in a shelter, told The Washington Post in a phone interview that though the suspected offenders were juveniles, she didn’t feel more sympathetic to them, or think that officials should tread more lightly with the case.
“Age shouldn’t matter on something like this,” Mills said. “There were so many lives lost in this fire, due to this fire, and due to them being inconsiderate. There were so many lives lost. Animals’ lives lost. Humans’ lives lost. And the beautiful place that we lived in, you know, that was—”
Then she sighed, and said: “You know. It’s not good. I mean, it’s not good.”
“I would love to see them tried as adults,” Mills said. “Yes ma’am. They need to be tried as adults. As many people that lost their lives and stuff, and their homes. And they can’t replace that. They can’t replace it. The homes? Yeah. But they can’t replace the sentimental stuff in the homes. They can’t replace the lives. And, it ain’t the parents’ fault. You can raise your kid to the best of your knowledge, but your kids are going to turn out how they want to be when they get of age. And I do feel sorry for the parents. But no, I do not feel sorry for those kids.”
Although wind gusts exceeding 60 mph caused the disaster to explode in Sevier County, fires had been brewing for months in this region. More than 150,000 acres have been charred in the Southeast by large fires, according to the U.S. Forest Service, and nearly 4,000 firefighters have been called into action to fight blazes that keep popping up.
The wind carried the flames from the nearby Chimney Tops fire across ground parched by a historic drought and into the surrounding towns. The fire moved too fast and too far to contain. “This is a fire for the history books,” Miller said last week. “The likes of this has never been seen here.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) called the fire the state’s worst in at least a century.
“To the residents of Sevier County: We stand with you and are committed to making sure justice is served in this case,” TBI Director Mark Gwyn said at the news conference Wednesday.
He added: “Our promise is that we will do every effort to help bring closure to those who have lost so much.”
The investigation is ongoing.
Gatlinburg, with a population of about 4,000 about 43 miles south of Knoxville, is surrounded on three sides by Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies, part of the Appalachian mountain range, straddle the border between eastern Tennessee and North Carolina.
Considered the gateway town to the Tennessee side of the park, Gatlinburg draws more than 11 million visitors a year, according to tourism officials. It is known for its mountain chalets and ski lodge — drawing honeymooners and other visitors all year long.
Downtown Gatlinburg was spared by the fires, and property owners, business owners, renters and lease holders were allowed to return to full-time occupancy on Wednesday. The tourist destination is expected to reopen for business on Friday.
Still, despite two days of heavy rains earlier this week, hundreds of firefighters continue to work on the mountains, where the fire was about 82 percent contained by Thursday afternoon. Parts of the park, including some major roadways, remain closed.
“Some heat still exists within the fire perimeter and smoke may be visible from these areas from time to time,” the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said in a Thursday advisory. “Firefighters will continue to patrol and mop up any hot spots that may be a threat to the containment lines or structures. The area will continue to be monitored and patrolled.”
Emergency officials said Thursday that 112 people were still being sheltered in Sevier County by the American Red Cross.
Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said news that two juveniles were charged with starting the fire was “heartbreaking.”
“I know a lot of people have just had a lot of questions,” he told ABC affiliate WATE. “How did it start? You know, how did it happen? I think that it’s closure for a lot of people, but it’s still devastating, the whole thing. Our hearts go out to everybody and we just want to get back to normal.”
Angela Fritz and Peter Holley contributed to this post, which has been updated numerous times.