Wildfires in the deep South are usually contained and short lived. 2016, though, has brought dry conditions that have left poorly maintained forests exceptionally dry. So when two teenagers set a fire outside Gatlinburg, Tennessee, it spread rapidly. The conflagration proved deadly, and the two teens are now looking at very serious criminal charges.
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The fires began in late November and blazed through the resort town in eastern Tennessee. Weather hampered control efforts, and the fires destroyed homes, businesses and much of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Officials eventually announced that they’d arrested two teenagers, and charged the boys with aggravated arson. Because of their ages, the boys have not been identified and it is unclear if their ages will keep them from being tried as adults.
CNN’s legal analyst Danny Cevallos said the case was “pretty complicated.” What the boys may have intended matters less than the fact that the fires resulted in the death of 14 people.
“Depending on the facts of the case, even if they didn’t intend to kill anyone, they still could be charged with first-degree murder.” Though murder hardly seems premeditated, the arson is clear.
Tennessee still has the death penalty, which is one option open for sentencing. It is more likely that they pair will spend their entire lives behind bars.
The Knoxville News Sentinel has reported that the boys are 15 and 17. As the Sentinel reports:
The boys were hiking on the Chimney Tops trail in the park on Nov. 23 and tossing lit matches onto the ground around the trail, the sources said.
A hiker unwittingly captured an image of the boys walking away from the trail with smoke in the background, and the teenagers’ clothing helped authorities identify them, according to sources.
The fires that left 14 people dead will have a lasting impact on the area surrounding Gatlinburg. The town serves as a gateway to the national park and is built around seasonal tourist attractions. Though the tourists who frequent the area are often well off, the surrounding area is rural Appalachia, and financially dependent on tourism.
This video offers an in-depth look at the fire and its aftermath.