After Learning That Two Teens Started the Tennessee Wildfires, There’s One Thing I Can’t Stop Thinking About

Image Source: Getty Images
Image Source: Getty Images

Two Juveniles Charged for Starting Sevier County Wildfires.”

This isn’t the first headline I’ve read that scares the daylights out of me as a mother and a human being, and it probably won’t be the last headline that forces me and the rest of the world to see what our youth can be capable of.

As a 10-year resident of Tennessee, I too watched in horror as wildfires ravaged thousands of acres of revered woods and natural land in the Gatlinburg area — forcing 14,000 evacuations, destroying more than 1,700 structures, and taking 14 lives. Fourteen people couldn’t get out in time. Fourteen people died.

There was a helpless mourning throughout Tennessee as crews worked around the clock to keep the fires from spreading further in unusually dry conditions and winds upwards of 80 mph. The flames had no mercy, forcing the closure of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the city of Gatlinburg, and surrounding resorts and attractions. The fires shut down an area chockfull of tourists late in the year.

And as we watched the fires blaze on, we all quietly wondered: How did they start? What or who caused this? Who would do such a thing if it was on purpose? And investigators worked tirelessly to get those answers.

Fourteen days after the fires started, two juveniles were arrested on charges of aggravated arson, and people are understandably furious. The exact circumstances of how it originally started and the ages and genders of the two juveniles have not been released yet.

As a local, I’m angry and I understand the many Internet commenters and their “get a rope” commentary. I’m happy they found the individuals who started this and I believe they deserve to be punished for the devastation that resulted. They definitely shouldn’t get a free pass or a slap on the wrist because they’re young.

I’m guessing they probably got scared and didn’t notify anyone about what they had done. But I hope they saw the man on the news desperate to find his wife and two young daughters after the fires spread, sharing pictures of them and searching shelter after shelter for days and coming up empty. I hope they know that man’s last phone call with his wife was wrought with fear because the flames were getting close to their house, and she was scared. I hope they know he waited for days only to find out his wife and daughters were 3 of the 14 bodies that were found.

Despite the devastation, I also have to stop and think about this as a mother. I am hoping with everything in me that the two teens truly didn’t intend for anyone to get hurt. I am hoping they feel true, raw gut-wrenching remorse. Not because they got caught, but because lives were lost and homes and businesses were destroyed.

And I think of these kids’ parents and wonder what it must be like for them right now. Did these kids come from a good home with loving parents who are horrified at what’s happened? Did they grow up with no guidance at all? Did their children mean for this to happen or was it a stupid, stupid thing that got wildly out of control? How do you apologize for something like that?

Are they standing strong by their children right now even though they are also being scrutinized and the focus of a witch hunt in the public eye? Are they standing by their children though they are shocked and deeply ashamed of what they’ve done? Or are they staying away, afraid of being discovered?

It begs the question: Do we really mean it when we say we love and stand by our kids no matter what? That’s a deep one. Can good parents raise children capable of terrible things? I shudder to think I could be the parent of a child that could make such a drastic mistake, but I believe I’d be there for them.

When they’re young we tell them over and over again they can’t just walk out into the street or run with scissors; we teach them to respect people and things, and we say “be careful” a hundred times a day. But we can’t control their actions and influences 24/7.

I remember it was a big deal in my small hometown during my childhood when my cousin and several neighborhood friends were playing with a lighter and set a small shed on fire by accident. It scared the living daylights out of them. Luckily the fire was put out before the shed was destroyed and no one got hurt, but they learned a big lesson that day.

That’s an incident on a tiny scale compared to what happened in Sevier County, but I think it speaks to the impulsiveness and carelessness of kids who don’t comprehend the end results that are obvious to adults.

We sadly cannot go back and change what happened, but we can use this latest headline as a teaching moment for ourselves and our kids. The smallest action can snowball into a monstrous situation that gets beyond our control. And yes, you are loved no matter what, but let’s prevent the “no matter what’s.”

We would also do well to make sure we appreciate the sacred beauty of natural areas and understand that they aren’t just cool backdrops for selfies on social media. The livelihoods of entire communities depend on those resources, and we need to respect and appreciate that. No matter what.

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