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Revisiting the 2016 Gatlinburg fires

The U.S. Fire Administration defines arson as "willful, malicious, intentional and/or reckless burning of...property" and "wildfire arson" as burning "underdeveloped wildland or uncultivated land comprised of forest, brush or grassland." In November 2016, wildfires raged through Tennessee's eastern mountains, leaving 14 dead and 200 physically injured. 

The following month, the district attorney announced charges of aggravated arson against two teens who had left lit matches on a trail just a few days before the fire spread. The questions everyone asked were whether the courts would require the two to appear as adult offenders and whether the teens would also face murder charges. For several months, the DA offered few hints about how the case would move forward.

In the summer of this year, however, the courts provided answers to both questions. They would not require the teenagers to stand trial as adult offenders; neither would they charge the young men with murder. In fact, according to the USA Today, the DA also eventually dropped the arson charges. With insufficient evidence to derive a direct connection between the lit matches five days earlier and the engulfing flames fueled by sudden winds, the young hikers walked away with the lesser charges of "setting fire in a park."

Although another hiker had video of the young men dropping lit matches on the trail, their defense attorney argued that too many other mitigating factors contributed to the spread of the fire and the resulting deaths. An initial decision not to put out the small blaze, a delay in evacuations later and an unforeseeable surge in wind are just a few of the variables the attorney put forward. In addition, since the teens could not have predicted their behavior might lead to an uncontrollable wildfire, the courts determined they could not hold the young men responsible for the deaths that occurred. 

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