Prosecutors drop charges against teens in Sevier County wildfires

(Courtesy: Mark Nagi/TDOT via WATE)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Prosecutors have dropped the charges against the two juveniles charged in the deadly wildfires last fall in Sevier County.

After a comprehensive investigation and review, authorities say the “unprecedented, unexpected, and unforeseeable wind event” in the early morning hours of Nov. 28, 2016 is the “primary reason” for the Chimney Tops II fire travelling outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

PHOTOS: Wildfires in East Tennessee

Without the winds that topped 80 miles per hour, authorities say it’s “highly unlikely and improbable” the fire would’ve travelled as far as Gatlinburg.

Because of the wind, the state of Tennessee is “unable to prove the criminal responsibility of two juveniles beyond a reasonable doubt for the devastation that occurred outside” the national park.

In addition to the wind, state prosecutors say they found other fires in the area, and some of the ignition points were at downed power lines that erupted before the wildfire spread to city limits. Read the full press release here.

Sevier County and the city of Gatlinburg sent a joint press release after the announcement. It stated, in full:

Sevier County and Gatlinburg are frustrated at how complex this issue has become. Sevier County and Gatlinburg, along with legal counsel, are moving forward with the process of reviewing and releasing the voluminous records requests, after giving the U.S. Attorney’s office an opportunity to review the case.

One family released a statement through their attorney after the charges were dropped. Jimmy Vance, who lost his wife May in the fire, said:

We are now seven months down the road and my family is no closer to knowing why we were not warned to leave the mountain and who or what caused the fires that killed my beloved wife of 53 years. If the government has evidence that the fires were caused by another source, it should be disclosed immediately. May was a loving wife, mother, and grandmother and we miss her deeply.

The two juveniles were charged with aggravated arson in early December for their role in starting the wildfires that ultimately killed 14 people and damaged or destroyed more than 2,400 buildings in and around Gatlinburg.

Officials estimated the fires, which began overnight on Nov. 28, caused around $500 million in damage.

Click here for complete coverage on the Sevier County wildfires.