Sevier County authorities still under court order about fire information
An American flag has been hung at the entrance to Gatlinburg , Tenn., Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. A devastating wildfire destroyed numerous homes and buildings on Monday. (Michael Patrick/Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
TRAVIS DORMAN, Knoxville News-Sentinel
SEVIERVILLE – Sevier County authorities offered no answers Monday when victims of November’s wildfires asked them about the extent and purpose of a prosecutor’s order to withhold information on the firestorm from the public.
“It says in the paper you are looking for an outside firm to review the county’s wildfire handling of this disaster,” Chris Dunaway said to commissioners and Mayor Larry Waters during the public forum portion of a county commission meeting. “How is this firm going to look at the county’s handling of this fire when most of everything from this fire is under a gag order?
“The firm should look at 911 calls, police and EMT dispatch and fire victims’ accounts of that day to give a conclusive review to the county and the public.”
The meeting was the second in as many weeks in which fire victims asked questions but received no answers.
On Nov. 28, severe drought and high-speed winds sent a five-day-old, 1.5-acre fire racing from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park toward Gatlinburg and surrounding Sevier County communities. Authorities failed to evacuate residents, and the firestorm ultimately killed 14 people, injured hundreds more, and destroyed 2,400 structures.
Less than three weeks later, 4th Judicial District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn issued a letter stating the release of any more information on the fire could jeopardize the prosecution of the two juveniles accused of starting the initial blaze on the Chimney Tops trail. The boys, ages 15 and 17, face charges of aggravated arson.
Although it’s not a court order, public agencies and government officials have repeatedly cited Dunn’s letter to deny public records requests from media outlets and to decline to answer questions from those who suffered losses in the fires.
Waters said at the beginning of the meeting that the “attorney general’s order is still in effect. As soon as it is lifted, I assume whatever information is out there that needs to be considered will be.”
Also at the meeting, former National Park Service Ranger Jerry Grubb compared the Sevier County fires to the Cerro Grande fire, which left 400 families without homes in Los Alamos, N.M., in May of 2000.
Both the Cerro Grande and Chimney Tops fires began in mountains in conditions of severe drought and were swept by high-speed winds into nearby communities. Each caused around $1 billion in damages.
However, the Cerro Grande fire began as a prescribed burn, not as alleged arson, and that fire did not result in any deaths.
Grubb, who served as a park ranger for nearly 30 years and was trained in wildlife firefighting and arson investigation, said the causes of both fires were the same: mismanagement and negligence.
Grubb said that by not extinguishing the fire when it was first reported, the Park Service failed to follow its own directives. The Park Service’s panel to review its handling of the fire is a “smokescreen to mitigate the negligence” and is “like the fox guarding the chickens,” he said.
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