The search for justice: Sevier Co. residents split on decision to drop wildfire charges

June 30, 2017: Sevier County residents expressed a range of emotions in response to the decision to drop the state charges against two juveniles accused of starting the November fires.

SEVIER COUNTY - For those who live and work in Gatlinburg, the past seven months have been spent salvaging what they can of their belongings, and starting to rebuild after deadly wildfires caused massive destruction to thousands of homes and businesses in November.

Residents and business owners expressed a mix of shock, confusion, anger and acceptance Friday in reaction to the District Attorney General's announcement that state charges against the two teenagers accused of starting the Chimney Tops 2 fire have been dropped. 

Kirk Fleta had just finished building his oak home before the fire disaster in November. 

"I just moved everything I owned into it and was so happy. I finally achieved my goal of getting under a roof, and then the fires came. Bad timing, you know, and it's devastating to me because I worked hard," Fleta said.

There is a chance the teens could face federal charges in connection to the fire, and Fleta said he thinks they should. He also believes city, county and national park leaders should be held accountable for their initial response to the fire. 

MORE: Pain, shock and forgiveness: Families of wildfire victims react to DA's decision

Hugh Faust, whose Riverhouse Motorlodge was destroyed in the fires, said his frustration lies in how the fires were handled. He says he tried to get to his business of 47 years that night, but wasn't allowed through.

"I could have made a difference. We would have backfired it up the hill and put water on the wood sheds that burned. And that would have been the end of it," he said.


"The problem was not how the fire was started. It was the national park's response to the fire at the time," Faust said. "They let it go for five days. Then the winds came in that were predicted when it started. And that turned into a roaring hell."

The National Park Service said Friday that it will continue to work with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and will then present their findings to the U.S. Attorney General's Office.

An after-action report on the park's response to the fire is expected to be released in August.

In the Smokies on Friday, where scars from the fires are still visible on mountainside, visitors echoed the need for someone to be held accountable for the fires. 

"I’m surprised. I think everybody thinks that they should pay in some way for this," said Connie Reinart, who wore a Smokies Strong shirt on her trip to the park. "If they aren’t going to be charged with anything and just walk away, they aren’t going to have learned anything."


Amidst the anger and confusion about Friday's announcement, though, were feelings of acceptance and forgiveness, and ultimately, a desire for Gatlinburg to rebuild. 

Pete and Joy Jucker lost their house in the fires, and started the Heal and Rebuild Project to collect donations for people in need as they began rebuilding their own home.

Pete Jucker said he believes other factors like wind and weather conditions played a large role in causing the fire to spread. He said he's forgiven the two teens for the role they're accused of playing. 

“I forgive them right off the bat because I know God forgives everybody, Jesus forgives everybody," he said. 


Buddy McLean, owner of the Lodge at Buckberry Creek, said he's at peace with the decision to drop the charges.

"Justice isn't necessarily a cut-and-dry thing," McLean said. "It was truly a perfect storm and people did the best they could. This town did the best they could."

McLean lost six of the seven buildings at his lodge in the fire. He said he's thankful all of his employees and guests got out of the fire safely.

And to McLean, justice doesn't necessarily come in the legal form.

"Those two boys are going to live with those 14 lives lost for the rest of their lives. I don't think I could do that," he said. "Those boys have been given an opportunity to hopefully start all over and make something out of their lives, to give back to a community."

"Justice to me is seeing these mountains come back, seeing the guests come back, letting people know that there is renewal in the area," he said.

© 2017 WBIR.COM


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