Tennessee Prosecutor Blocks Information on Wildfire Arson

Attorney General Dunn says prosecution could be jeopardized

Fire erupts on both side of Highway 441 between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. In Gatlinburg, smoke and fire caused the mandatory evacuation of downtown and surrounding areas, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. (Jessica Tezak/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)



DON JACOBS, Knoxville News Sentinel

Less than three weeks after a firestorm struck Gatlinburg, the Sevier County prosecutor decided the public had gotten all the information it was going to get about the disaster.

Flames still were burning in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but all local, state and federal agencies involved in the disaster were asked to deny any further information or records to the public.

Fourth Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn on Dec.15 issued a two-page letter stating the prosecution of two juveniles accused of starting the fire could be jeopardized by the release of any more information. The letter targeted media outlets to explain why nothing more would be forthcoming as he investigated the aggravated arson charges filed Dec. 7 against the boys, ages 15 and 17.

FirefighterNation: Juveniles Charged in Fatal Tennessee Wildfire

Consequently, otherwise public records in any way connected to the investigation of the fires that started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and five days later swept into Gatlinburg were deemed off limits. When public agencies refused to release information or records, each would cite Dunn’s request, which is not a court order.

Dunn apparently has the authority to issue the blanket gag order because of a state Supreme Court decision issued in 2015 in the Vanderbilt rape case, according to Richard Hollow, general counsel for the Tennessee Press Association.

Any challenge to a denial of information, Hollow said, would have to go before a judge.

“In terms of the sheer breadth and scope of (Dunn’s) request, I have never seen and my colleagues have never encountered this,” Hollow said.

The fire allegedly set by the boys was first seen about 5:20 p.m. Nov. 23 by park fire management officer, Greg Salansky, who saw smoke from the slow-moving, downhill burning fire on Chimney Tops.

On Nov. 28, high winds swept the then-500-acre fire into Gatlinburg and Sevier County, where flames were blamed for 14 deaths, 191 injuries and the damage or destruction of more than 2,400 structures. At last tally, insurance claims from the fire were estimated at $842 million.

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