USA 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.
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.
Any information about the number of calls to the Sevier County 911 Center about the fires, if local fire departments have implemented any policy changes because of lessons learned during the disaster or how many fires were caused when high winds toppled trees onto electrical lines, sending sparking wires onto drought-stricken ground, would not be be shared with the public because of Dunn’s request.
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 L. 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.
Dunn is under no obligation to explain why he doesn’t want some records, such as after-action reports on a fire department’s performance, kept from public disclosure. Such an explanation, Hollow said, could provide insight into Dunn’s strategy for prosecuting the cases.
Dunn has not returned multiple calls in recent weeks seeking an explanation for withholding some records and an update on the juvenile court case.
The prosecutor announced the charges against the boys and little else. State laws governing juvenile courts and records, Dunn said, prohibited the release of more information about the charges.
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.
Salansky decided the 1.5-acre fire should be contained, as opposed to extinguished, because the rocky, steep terrain would present a safety risk to firefighters. Instead, National Park firefighters created a 410-acre containment zone for the flames, mainly using trails and a nearby creek.
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, the damage or destruction of more than 2,400 structures and, at last tally, about $842 million in damages. The fire covered 17,000 acres in and out of the National Park.
Several retired U.S. Forest Service firefighters said park officials mishandled the initial fire, saying it easily could have been extinguished before becoming a wind-whipped firestorm.
National Park officials declined to address those claims because of the pending juvenile charges. An examination of the park’s handling of the fire is underway by a federal Individual Fire Review team, but it’s unclear if Dunn’s blanket of secrecy will keep those findings from disclosure.
Dunn’s request to stifle release of more information about the disaster was addressed ‘To Whom it May Concern’ and explained his office was engaged in the probe of how the fire started “and the death and destruction that resulted.” The investigation “could take several weeks, if not longer,” and “involves numerous agencies and personnel from the local, state and federal levels,” the letter said.
“Any releases of information at this time would be extremely premature and could compromise the investigation,” it stated. “All of the information regarding this case that can legally be shared has already been made available.”
Hollow said Dunn’s request not a court order was based on a ruling that determined the Nashville Tennessean newspaper could not access law enforcement records related to the rape investigation because of Rule 16 of the Tennessee Rules of Procedure.
Rule 16 involves any evidence, documents or statements that are expected to be used in a criminal case that must be shared between prosecutors and defense attorneys through the discovery process. Discovery basically is where attorneys ask through court filings what evidence each has that the other is legally entitled to.
The Vanderbilt ruling carved out an exemption to the state Open Records Act for any information that might be used in court, Hollow said.
“All law enforcement records in pending or considered criminal cases are confidential until the last challenge has been exhausted,” Hollow said.
That means authorities can continue to withhold emails and text messages exchanged by those tasked with deciding when to order the evacuation of Gatlinburg until the juveniles have traveled all possible paths of appeal. The News Sentinel also has requested emails and text messages of National Park employees involved in deciding how to handle the fire that eventually raged into Gatlinburg.
Two days after the News Sentinel requested autopsy reports on the people listed as killed by the fire, Dunn’s office on Jan. 4 got Sevier County Circuit Court judges to issue orders forbidding release of the autopsy records and death certificates. Those are the only court-ordered records closures issued in connection with the juvenile cases.
As of last week, Dunn had not announced if he will charge the boys in connection with the 14 deaths or if he will seek to move the cases to the adult criminal court system.
State law regarding juvenile court prohibits release of information about the boys, their names, hometowns, how authorities identified them as suspects, if there are witnesses to the alleged arson, what time the fire started or how they got to the National Park that day.
According to Hollow, the public may never know how the charges are resolved because juvenile court records are not open to public review. News outlets may discover the cases are no longer listed on the docket of closed juvenile hearings, so the assumption could be made the cases have been adjudicated.
Because state law also allows juvenile records to be expunged, any official record of the cases, results of the investigation and the punishment may never be revealed.
Requests for after-action review reports from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge fire and police departments have been met with notices more time is needed to review the records. Authorities also note those reviews may not be available because of the pending juvenile cases.
“I’ve never heard of a district attorney being able to control public agencies’ performances during an emergency,” said Frank Gibson, TPA’s public policy director.
“The issue here is withholding information and how is it relevant,” he said. “How is the performance of a public agency called in to fight these fires possibly detrimental to the prosecution of these charges?”
Hollow said it appears some of the information requested by the News Sentinel doesn’t appear to fall under Rule 16. But a judge has to make that decision.
“There is no way to inexpensively and rapidly challenge the classification of information being withheld,” he said.
Requests for the performance review of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency also were met with notice that Rule 16 may prohibit release of the document, according to TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan.
Sheehan, however, noted the review is months away from completion because of the number of emergency agencies involved, the extent of damage and the ongoing recovery work in Gatlinburg and Sevier County.
The Sevier County wildfire is the most catastrophic wildland-urban interface fire event in the history of Tennessee, and the most devastating fire in the state since the 1916 East Nashville fire,” he said.
“While TEMA and its partners have had initial, internal discussions on how to proceed with our after-action review, we are mindful that the wildfires historical impact and consequences requires our evaluation to be thorough of both the response and recovery operations, and include input from all organizations and jurisdictions that have played a role in either phase.”
Sheehan said reviews of other major disasters in Tennessee have taken six months to complete.
“There is no question that how park and TEMA officials responded to the fire is of legitimate public interest,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
“Its hard to see how what they did is related to proving what the alleged arsonists did.”
Fisher said while the public has an interest in justice, they also have a “compelling interest in understanding what their government did or did not do in trying to deal with the fire once it was started.”
“There are other ways to ensure a fair trial without withholding legitimate public information, like a TEMA review report, from the public,” Fisher said.
El capitán del primer batallón de la Unidad Militar de Emergencias (UME), Emilio Arias, ha descrito como “dantescos” los efectos del incendio forestal en el paraje natural de la Sierra de Gata (Cáceres), aunque ha sido optimista en cuanto a su extinción al darse una situación “bastante favorable” en estos momentos. Fotogalería ALCALDE 11 Fotos La Sierra de Gata, tras el incendio “El incendio se dio por estabilizado y ahora mismo sólo hay pequeños focos que se reactivan por lo que la situación es bastante adecuada para intentar extinguir el fuego”, ha explicado Arias en una entrevista en COPE. Arias ha descrito como “dantesco” el efecto del fuego en una zona “donde el terreno era precioso”. El mando único del Plan Director del Infoex decidía este lunes mantener activo el Nivel 2 de peligrosidad en el incendio de Sierra de Gata ante las previsiones de viento y altas temperaturas. Las mismas predicciones indican que habrá una mejoría a partir de las primeras horas de la noche del lunes, según ha informado la Junta de Extremadura. Más de 200 efectivos se mantienen en la zona. Intentar llegar a la normalidad es “un tanto difícil”, y que ahora hay que hacer valoraciones de los daños El incendio declarado el pasado jueves ha arrasado unas 7.500 hectáreas de alto valor agrícola, ambiental y paisajístico, de ahí que el Gobierno regional haya iniciado ya la evaluación de los daños y comenzado a preparar la recuperación de la zona. El director general de Medio Ambiente, Pedro Muñoz, ha afirmado que el incendio ha causado un “desastre” desde el punto de vista medioambiental ya que ha arrasado miles de hectáreas de pinar, olivar y pastos, además de haber producido cuantiosos daños materiales en algunas poblaciones. La asociación conservacionista SEO/Birdlife ha denunciado que el incendio afectó gravemente a especies amenazadas y a espacios protegidos de la Red Natura 2000, incluidos robledales, madroñales y castañares centenarios. Todo el área afectada es una zona ornitólogica de interés mundial. Por su parte, el alcalde de la localidad cacereña de Hoyos, Óscar Antúnez, ha alabado la participación ciudadana en el municipio para ayudar a los operarios del plan Infoex como “lo bonito dentro de la tragedia” y ha añadido que el “sentir general” de los ciudadanos de Sierra de Gata es de “frustración e indignación” tras el incendio forestal. El alcalde ha señalado que ha podido hablar con los vecinos de la localidad y que los “más afectados” son los que han perdido fincas o casas de campo, sobre todo una familia que ha perdido su domicilio de vacaciones habitual, que era una casa “recién reformada”. Asimismo, Óscar Antúnez ha indicado que intentar llegar a la normalidad es “un tanto difícil”, y que ahora hay que hacer valoraciones de los daños, tanto la Mancomunidad de Municipios de Sierra de Gata como la Junta de Extremadura, para ver qué ayudas se pueden proporcionar y de qué modo, además de cuáles serán los medios disponibles. Por último, el primer edil de Hoyos ha explicado que los vecinos, “más allá de la lamentación”, deben intentar hacer “una vida normal”, aunque ha considerado que es muy difícil “dado el paisaje que tenemos”, ya que casi el 90% del término municipal está calcinado, ha indicado.