HOOD RIVER, Ore. (KOIN) — The Vancouver teenager suspected of starting the Eagle Creek Fire on Sept. 2 pleaded guilty and apologized in a Hood River County courtroom Friday morning.
He admitting to setting off fireworks along a hiking trail in the Columbia River Gorge, which sparked the blaze that consumed more than 50,000 acres. The fire forced evacuations, caused an extended shutdown of an interstate highway and sent ash raining down on Portland.
Many popular trails and landmarks remain closed.
The teen pleaded guilty to 12 charges: 8 counts of reckless burning, 2 counts of throwing away lighted materials in a prohibited area, one count of criminal mischief and one count of recklessly endangering another person.
A misdemeanor charge of possessing fireworks was dismissed.
The teen submitted a written letter of apology at the sentencing, which said, in part:
“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 who 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 tht 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 this bad decision for the rest of my life… …I know I have to earn your forgiveness and I will work hard to do so and one day, I hope I will. … I apologize with all my heart to everyone in the Gorge.”
What the judge said
Judge John Olson said he struggled to figure out what he wanted to say at the sentencing. A “national treasure is scarred for generations,” he said before handing out his sentence.
He ordered the teen to perform 1,920 hours of community service and spend 5 years on probation. He is to report as required 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., can have no firearms or explosives. He needs to send apology letters to various people which can be published in the local paper. He is not to have contact with the victims and he 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, but he can drive through the area.
Before he was sentenced, various people testified about the impact the fire had on their lives, including one of the 152 hikers stranded when the fire began.
She said she and her boyfriend were hiking back from Punchbowl and saw the smoke roll up from below and overtake the trail that went back to the trailhead. They turned around and told others what was happening. She said she was excited when a Forest Ranger said a helicopter would drop sleeping bags and supplies, but that never happened because the smoke became too thick.
She also said, “Chipmunks and lizards were also trying to escape the fire with us.”
The Forest Service said, officially, the fire cost $18 million to fight as it spread to more than 48,000 acres.
The Oregon Department of Transportation reported they had to remove 12,000 trees to keep the interstate corridor safe, and that they estimate the fire kept about 181,000 people from visiting the corridor in the 2 weeks it was closed.
Oregon Parks and Recreation said they had to lay off 27 seasonal rangers because many of their recreational sites were closed.
Julie Wagner from Cascade Locks was among the families evacuated. She said she’s not angry but she wants accountability. She also suggested the teen go around to schools and educate people about the dangers of fireworks.
Carrie Schenk, whose mother lost her home in the fire, felt the sentencing was fair and she could tell her felt remorse and regret for what happened.
“He didn’t intend to start the fire. He was a kid,” Schenk said. “He didn’t know any better. A smoke bomb? He probably didn’t relay that it would start a fire, but he thought it was just going to smoke.”
Schenk said her mother is doing better but is still “pretty traumatized about the whole thing.”
Karen Sinizer, who also attending the hearing, agreed that the sentencing was appropriate.
“Spending years in prison, juvenile jail would not have been productive,” she said. “I’m hoping this kid will learn a huge lesson by working with the Forest Service.”
Sinizer and another attendee, Martha Lamont, both felt the apology was weak.
“It was canned. I’d like it to be more impromptu, more heartfelt,” Sinizer said. “Given his age and what was going on, I’m not surprised.”
“I wanted to see more emotion,” Lamont said. “But he’s 15, so.”
Police did not identify the suspect for his safety. To date, KOIN 6 News has not publicly identified him, either.
“The juvenile received so many death threats that we definitely decided not to release his name publicly,” Oregon State Police Capt. Bill Fugate said
Fugate said the state police had to hide many Facebook comments because people were saying “all kinds of horrible things to him and his family,” including throwing him in the fire.