Oregon State Police have identified a 15-year-old male from Vancouver, Washington as a primary suspect responsible for the still-blazing Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge.
A witness described a boy in a group of teenagers lobbing firecrackers down Eagle Creek Canyon shortly before the area went up in flames and smoke. The investigation into the incident is ongoing as the officers gather more information and witness accounts.
What charges, if any, might this teenager face?
That’s up to the district attorney in this case — the suspect could face a number of charges such as arson, reckless endangerment, criminal mischief and/or reckless burning. In Oregon, a felony conviction of first-degree arson can carry a maximum 20-year prison sentence and a maximum fine of $375,000.
Oregon State Police Captain Bill Fugate says investigators will look at the teen’s intent in evaluating potential charges.
“[The goal] in any case is to show culpability. Was this a negligent act? A reckless act? Was it an intentional arson to start a forest fire? That’s part of the investigation. So, depending on what we can establish, that will change the levels of charging that the district attorney can review,” he said.
In 2015, three 12-year-olds were charged with first and second-degree arson and six other charges after setting a fire that destroyed Eugene’s historic civic stadium. The first-degree arson charges were dropped in a plea deal, and the minors were sentenced to up to five years probation. A fourth boy, 10, settled with prosecutors to avoid charges. The judge in the case opted not to reveal the names of the youths in that case. State law usually requires the government to keep juvenile records confidential.
If charged, could he or his parents be forced to pay for this fire?
Yes. Depending on the charges, a judge could order the teen to pay restitution for firefighting costs and damages. Parents of a convicted child can also be forced to pay restitution. In Oregon, parents of a minor charged with willful misconduct can be liable to pay up to $7,500 — a small fraction of even a day’s worth of firefighting expenses for a major wildfire.
Even if both the teen and his parents are forced to pay for damages, it’s unlikely that restitution would come close to covering firefighting costs. In Montana, for example, three teens who started an $11 million wildfire with their escaped campfire accepted a plea agreement requiring they pay 10 percent of their income for the next five years in addition to performing 100 hours of community service. A California minor responsible for setting the 2014 Cocos Fire, which destroyed 36 homes, was ordered to pay $40,000 in restitution for the blaze which cost $10.4 million in damage. She was also sentenced to 400 hours of community service. A 17-year-old Minnesotan teen was required to pay $160,000 in restitution for starting a 2014 wildfire in Cass Lake.
If charged, would the suspect be tried as a juvenile or an adult?
That’s up to the district attorney in the case to decide. If charges are announced, the Hood River or Multnomah County District Attorney will decide whether to pursue the case through the juvenile or regular court system.
Will law enforcement release the suspect’s name?
OSP originally said it will release the suspect’s name if and when he is charged with a crime(s). It’s rare for law enforcement to release suspect names of minors in Oregon, but officials say because of the visibility and the interest in this case, they would publicly identify the suspect if charged.
But they’re now reconsidering, because they’ve seen threats to lynch, hang or burn this teenage boy. It’s more likely that they’d let the district attorneys in the case decide whether to release his name.