Judge sentences teen for role in Eagle Creek Fire
The Vancouver, Wash., teenager suspected of starting the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire pleaded guilty and apologized in a Hood River County courtroom Friday morning, Feb. 16.
In court, the 15-year-old boy admitted to throwing fireworks into Eagle creek Canyon on Sept. 2, sparking the blaze that would consume more than 48,000 acres in the Columbia River Gorge. The fire forced evacuations caused an extended shutdown of Interstate 84, shrouded the Portland area in acrid smoke and sent ashes falling across East Multnomah County.
Many popular Gorge trails and landmarks, including the highly popular Multnomah Falls Trail, remain closed.
The boy, whose identity is being withheld to protect his safety, admitted guilt to 12 misdemeanors. He was sentenced to 1,920 hours of community service and five years of probation, as reported by KOIN 6 News, an Outlook media partner. In the courtroom, he heard testimony from those affected by the fire.
The charges include eight counts of reckless burning, two counts of throwing away lighted materials in a prohibited area, one count of criminal mischief and one count of recklessly endangering another person.
In court, the boy read a statement:
"I want to express how sorry I am for what I did. I know a lot of people suffered because of a bad decision that I made. I'm sorry to the first responders who risked their lives to put out the fires, I am sorry to the hikers that were trapped, I am sorry to the people who worried about their safety and their homes that day, and for weeks afterwards. I am truly sorry about the loss of nature that occurred because of my careless action.
"Every day I think about this terrible decision and its awful consequences. Every time I hear people talk about the fire, I put myself down. I know I will have to live with my bad decision for the rest of my life, but I have learned from this experience and will work hard to help rebuild the community in any way that I can. I now realize how important it is to think before acting because my actions can have serious consequences. I, myself, love spending time in nature and now I realize how much work it takes to maintain the National Forest so people can enjoy it.
"I sincerely apologize to everyone who had to deal with this fire, I cannot imagine how scary it must have been for you. I know I have to earn your forgiveness and I will work hard to do so and one day, I hope I will. Thank you for giving me a chance to speak. This has been a big learning experience for me and I take it very seriously. I apologize with all my heart to everyone in the gorge."
According to the boy's lawyers, he threw one firecracker in the air and it exploded. A second one with a longer fuse exploded on the ground, sparking the fire.
After the hearing Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, shared a response.
"Now is the time to focus on the healing process," Lang wrote. "The Eagle Creek fire was tragedy all around — creating significant hardship for Gorge communities and businesses, placing firefighters and first responders in harm's way, and scorching thousands of acres of pristine forest. There's a long road ahead but the Gorge is a resilient place."
Judge John Olson told the teen he hopes the community service helps him develop a sense of love and respect for nature. The teen will report to the Hood River County Juvenile Department and cannot leave Oregon or Washington without permission from the Juvenile Department. He must be home between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., and is expected to send apology letters to various people that can be published in the "local paper." He is not to have contact with the victims and must take part in a psychological evaluation.
The teen was also ordered not to go to the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Area or Mount Hood, though he can drive through the area. As a condition of his probation, the boy also cannot possess fireworks.
"The juvenile received so many death threats that we definitely decided to not release his name publicly," Oregon State Police Captain Bill Fugate told KOIN 6.
A separate hearing will be held in May to determine restitution required in the case.