Two juveniles have been arrested and charged with arson for allegedly starting the fire that killed at least 14 people in east Tennessee last month. They might be tried as adults, and authorities say there might be more arrests.
Prosecutors say the two minors started a fire on Nov. 23, according to a statement from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Feeding off a drought-stricken forest, the Chimney Tops 2 fire grew inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On Nov. 28, it swept into Gatlinburg, a popular tourist destination.
More than 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge, as The Two-Way has reported.
The fire was nightmarish, moving swiftly as it was propelled by powerful winds. Embers were flung as far as a mile, and where they landed, new flames burst up.
“We had wind gusts in excess of 87 miles an hour. That is hurricane force,” Gatlinburg’s fire chief told member station WPLN. “Everything was catching on fire.”
One survivor described “rivers of fire.” To make matters worse, some residents reportedly did not receive evacuation notices until after the fire had already passed the city limits.
At least 14 people died and hundreds lost their homes. In total, more than 2,400 buildings have been damaged or destroyed in the blaze, according to the InciWeb national fire management system.
Authorities said early on that they believed the fire was human-caused. Last week, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park asked the public to help crack the case — “If you or someone you know hiked the Chimney Tops Trail on Wednesday, November 23, please contact the investigative team,” the park said on Facebook.
On Wednesday, authorities announced they had charged the two juveniles with aggravated arson. The minors, who have not been publicly named, were being held at the Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center.
“Authorities would not share their genders, ages, or hometown,” reported Tony Gonzalez of WPLN. “The local prosecutor says he may seek to try them as adults.”
“Mark Gwyn, the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, says ‘countless hours’ have gone into the case,” Gonzalez added.
Local District Attorney General James Dunn said the investigation was ongoing, with more charges and more suspects possible. “Everything’s on the table,” he said, according to the AP.
While very little information has been released about the suspects, officials did say they are from Tennessee — though not from Sevier County, where Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are located, according to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
One local resident, 19-year-old Karyssa Dalton, told The Associated Press that the minors should be held accountable. Dalton’s grandmother Pamela Johnson is still missing, according to the AP.
“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 told the wire service. “It’s not fair.”
The wildfire is still smoldering, with hundreds of people working to fight it, according to the InciWeb national fire management system. Rainfall has helped reduce the fire’s spread, and fire crews hope for more rain to come.
In the meantime, residents of Gatlinburg were allowed to return home full time on Wednesday, after having only limited access to their homes for several days.