SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. - Authorities have charged two juveniles for starting an East Tennessee wildfire that killed 14 people and destroyed or damaged more than 1,700 buildings.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, local District Attorney General James Dunn and Great Smoky Mountains National Park announced charges at a news conference Wednesday.
Dunn said the juveniles face aggravated arson charges for the fire in the Chimney Tops area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Nov. 23. The fire spread to the Gatlinburg area, causing widespread damage. They’re being held in the Sevier County juvenile detention center.
They said the juveniles are from Tennessee, but not Sevier County. Officials said state law prevents releasing more information about them.
The investigation is ongoing and more charges could come. They said it’s possible they would move the case into adult courts.
The trouble began when the arson-induced wildfire spread from the national park into the Gatlinburg area as hurricane-force winds toppled trees and power lines, blowing embers in all directions.
More than 14,000 residents and visitors in Gatlinburg were forced to evacuate, and the typically bustling tourist city was shuttered.
Deputy Park Superintendent Jordan Clayton said the initial fire on an area called Chimney Tops, a double peaked ridge line about 4 miles away from Gatlinburg, was caused by a person or people. It started near the end of a popular hiking trail on Nov. 23.
Karyssa Dalton, a 19-year-old whose grandmother Pamela Johnson remains missing in the blaze, said the two should be held accountable, even though they’re young.
“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?” Dalton said. “It’s not fair.”
On Wednesday, Gatlinburg residents and business owners were allowed to move back into homes and establishments permanently. They had been allowed to visit during daytime hours since last Friday.
The city is slated to open to the public on Friday morning. Though swaths of the city were decimated, the main downtown strip appears to have been spared.