Note: This story was updated at 10 a.m. Dec. 8.
Two juveniles have been charged with aggravated arson in connection with the deadly wildfires in Sevier County last week, authorities said Wednesday. The fires burned more than 17,000 acres around the Chimney Tops trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Wears Valley. Fourteen people died, 176 were injured or made ill, and more than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed.
Local fire departments and law enforcement agencies responded to help fight the fires and provide search and rescue help, among other aid. The fire in the park, the most heavily visited in the United States, and the nearby tourist towns has been described as the largest in Tennessee in at least 100 years.
The charges announced Wednesday afternoon were filed after an investigation by special agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; National Park Service; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or ATF; and the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office.
Authorities haven’t named the juveniles or said where they live, except to say they live in Tennessee but not in Sevier County. It’s not clear if additional charges might be filed later, or whether the juveniles might be charged as adults. The petition against them was filed in juvenile court on Wednesday. Both were taken into custody and transported to the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center, a TBI press release said.
The Fourth District Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday afternoon that all options remain on the table, including charging the juveniles as adults. Within the next few days, a judge will determine whether or not bonds will be set and if, so, at how much.
The TBI press release said special agents began working alongside the National Park Service and ATF to investigate the wildfires that began last month at the request of Fourth District Attorney General James Dunn.
“During the course of the investigation, information was developed that two juveniles allegedly started the fire,” the press release said.
Fed by hurricane-force winds and a months-long drought, the fires burned into populated areas around Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Wears Valley on Monday, November 28. The fire at Chimney Tops south of Gatlinburg started earlier, on November 23, in a remote location of the park in steep terrain with vertical cliffs and narrow rocky ridges, making access to the wildfire area difficult for firefighting efforts.
TBI said the investigation into the fires is “active and ongoing.”
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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