SEVIER COUNTY, TN — Two juveniles have been arrested for their role in starting the deadly Gatlinburg wildfires that killed 14 people, injured more than 100 others, and destroyed over 1,600 structures.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Tennessee Attorney General James Dunn announced the latest declopments in the investigation at a news conference on Wednesday.
The juveniles face charges of aggravated arson in connection with the wildfire that began in late November in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and spread to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, according to Mark Gwyn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Officials were unable to provide much information about the suspects seeing as they are juveniles, but they did confirm they were Tennessee residents.
Dunn will be prosecuting the juveniles, whom he said could also face additional charges and be tried in adult court. For now, they are being held at a detention center and will have an initial hearing within 72 hours.
In terms of charges and whether or not there are more suspects, Dunn stated “everything is on the table.”
A recovering city
As homeowners are allowed to enter Gatlinburg and secure their properties, some have returned to find all they owned in ashes.
The fires gnawed away over 1,600 structures, scorching homes, cabins and churches along a fiery path through Sevier County.
An on-site personnel of nearly a thousand people are working to help Gatlinburg heal. They are bolstered by air and land assistance: 46 fire engines, six helicopters and five bulldozers.
Emergency crews are trying to restore utilities as quickly as possible and to allow the city’s roads to reopen.
But residents returning to evacuated areas of Gatlinburg face a new reality: a city checkpoint and curfew, limited area access, and a boil water advisory that will remain until further notice.
Combing through the ashes
As of last Friday, firefighters and other responders had done preliminary searches in about 90% of the burned areas, according to Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters.
Downed trees and power lines were hindering the search, but officials were hopeful the worst had passed.
They prayed for the expected number of deaths to remain unchanged.
But as Sunday came to an end, the death toll number rose once more.
A tragic end
Among the fires’ victims are a mom and two daughters, who were confirmed dead by the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office, according to CNN affiliate WATE.
It marks a heartbreaking end to Michael Reed’s desperate search for his wife and two youngest children.
Reed told reporters earlier last week that he had been separated from his family Monday night after they had heard that a fire was burning out of control near their Gatlinburg-area home.
Reed and his 15-year-old son left in the family’s only vehicle to see what side of the road the fire was burning on. He says they got stuck in traffic as people fled the blaze.
That’s when Reed received a panicked call from his wife, Constance, 34.
“She … said there were flames across the street from the house. I told her to call 911,” Reed said.
That’s when he rushed back to the home to discover “the road was on fire and every house was engulfed in flames.”
“I thought she’d be standing in the driveway,” he said.
He’d been trying to find out what happened to Constance and their daughters, Chloe, 12, and Lily, 9, ever since.