A judge in Sevier County has issued a new ruling on information surrounding the deadly wildfire event of late last year. The order was issued in response to a request by the state attorney general’s office concerning clarifications on what details the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency could release to the public. Judge Jeff Rader, who will also preside over the case of the two teens charged with starting the fire, ruled that the gag order only applies to attorneys and court officials in the case.
“Specifically, the order was directed to the District Attorney General’s Office for the Fourth Judicial District of Tennessee, the attorneys representing each of the defendants, and all respective agents of the parties. This Court did not intend to direct or address the actions of any other entities or parties not specifically involved in these cases,” the order states.
TEMA had petitioned the court for a determination about whether it could release its records concerning the Chimney Tops 2 and Cobbly Knob fires after having received numerous requests for them from media outlets and other agencies. In the intervening weeks since the order was issued, not much information has been released to the public. Survivors continue to hope for much-needed answers about what happened in the days leading up to the fire and the response afterwards. TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan said today (Tuesday, June 27, 2017) his agency is gathering thousands of documents to review confidentiality, responsiveness and cost estimates.
“TEMA, working through legal counsel and with the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office, requested the ruling from the Sevier County Juvenile Court to clarify what records we could share without violating or being in contempt of the Court’s original order to withhold records. We did this to ensure we would not endanger any ongoing investigations and prosecutions, nor interfere with the right of the accused to receive a fair trial under law. As soon as the court ruling was issued, TEMA in conjunction with our legal office, began gathering records for the purpose of reviewing for confidentiality, responsiveness, and potential cost estimates to respond to the multiple requests we have received. These requests cover a large period of time and comprise thousands of records, many of which are not centrally located, that TEMA must collect from across the State and review. TEMA continues to work as quickly as possible to respond to all current and future requests for records,” said Sheehan.
Fourteen people died in the fire as it spread in November 2016, causing nearly a billion dollars in damage. The names and status of the two teens currently charged with setting the fires has not been released.