GATLINBURG (WATE) – A judge in Sevier County has issued a new ruling on information surrounding the deadly Gatlinburg wildfires. The order was issued on June 5, 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,” reads the order.
LMU Law Professor Stewart Harris said he thinks agencies will release details about the fire that they could not before. These records can include reports, recordings and other records pertaining to the case.
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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.
“There were heroic activities that took place. There were also decisions that maybe should have been made differently. We need new information out. It needs to stop being about how much information can we withhold from the people” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
TEMA Director Patrick Sheehan said Tuesday 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.”
“What it should mean moving forward is that information starts to flow again. The judge has clarified that he was only protecting certain information and that means that the remaining information that is available from most state and local agencies should be disclosed fairly quickly,” said Harris.
Fourteen people died in the fire as it spread in November 2016, causing nearly a billion dollars in damage.
“If we had something like this happen again, we’d be better prepared,” Fisher said. “We have to learn from what happened to prevent this from happening again.”