State arson charges have been dropped against two teen boys who authorities said set a blaze Nov. 23 that grew into an inferno that swept into Gatlinburg and parts of Sevier County five days later.
District Attorney General James Dunn said in a press release Friday that the state couldn't prove the original blaze inside the park that was allegedly set by the boys led to the Nov. 28 disaster in Gatlinburg.
It'll be up to the U.S. Department of Justice to pursue any charges against any individuals alleged to have caused the Smokies fire Nov. 23, according to Dunn.
The announcement comes seven months after the disaster swept Nov. 28 across Sevier County - a disaster that the National Park Service had said started with a blaze set in the park's popular Chimney Tops 2 site.
A cloak of secrecy has been thrown over the juveniles' case since they were charged in December, with authorities citing their protected status as juveniles as the reason.
The teen boys were alleged to have started a fire Nov. 23 - the day before Thanksgiving -- in the Chimney Tops 2 area.
That fire in turn grew over the next several days, although it remained in the national park. Park officials have said they monitored it closely and thought they had a handle on it.
By Sunday, Nov. 27, however, weather officials were warning that a storm could be approaching the mountains that included high winds.
On Nov. 28, the system moved in, driving the fire into Gatlinburg and parts of Sevier County.
Fourteen people died as a result. More than 2,400 structures were burned or damaged by fire.
Total loss from the fires that moved into Sevier County were estimated at about $1 billion.
Authorities charged the boys in December in Sevier County Juvenile Court. They were not named. Officials said the teens weren't from Sevier County but declined to be more specific other than to say they lived in Tennessee.
They were held initially at Sevier County Juvenile Detention Center. TBI Director Mark Gwyn announced the charges Dec. 9 at a press conference, noting many "hours have gone into conducting interviews and investigating this incident from every angle."
From its start Nov. 23 of a few acres, the fire eventually covered some 17,000 acres.
The fires remain under investigation. The National Park Service is expected to release in August an internal review of how personnel handled the blaze.
Hundreds of workers had to scramble to find housing after fire swept into Gatlinburg and surrounding hillsides.
Tourism dipped after the fires, with visitors from outside the area incorrectly assuming Gatlinburg's main tourism sites had burned. In fact, they had not, and businesses eagerly reopened as soon as they could in December.
Gatlinburg officials emphasized that the town's core survived the fire, and state tourism officials continue to tout its many attractions.
After the disaster, donors from across the country contributed money to help fire victims. Rebuilding is an ongoing effort, although some who lost their homes have decided their loss was so traumatic that they'd rather sell their property than rebuild.
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