UPDATE (Feb. 16, 3:27 p.m. PST) — The 15-year-old boy charged with igniting the Eagle Creek Fire pleaded guilty Friday morning.
The teenager — described by his defense attorney as a respectful, polite violin player from a tight-knit, loving family — underwent the juvenile equivalent of pleading guilty to 12 charges, including two counts of burning on forest land, eight counts of reckless burning, one count of criminal mischief and one count of reckless endangerment.
Judge John Olson sentenced the teenager to five years of probation. He will also be required to complete 1,920 hours of community service, which will be facilitated by the U.S. Forest Service.
“In my perspective, the law was applied here as it should,” said Jack Morris, the boy’s defense attorney. “I want you to know that the state has not done him any favors.”
Morris said his client has been given another chance.
“That’s what the law here provided my client,” Morris told the courtroom. “You’ve been given a second chance; earn it. [And] I can guarantee you that’s what my client will do.”
In a statement read before the courtroom, the teen apologized.
“Every day, I think about this terrible decision and its awful consequences,” he said. “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 I can.”
Friday’s hearing was the first public proceeding related to the fire that affected nearly 49,000 acres of the Columbia River Gorge. The Hood River County Courthouse was open to media, members of the public and residents in nearby communities who were evacuated as a result of the blaze that first began Sept. 2.
Victims of the fire sat in the mustard-colored former church pews in Courtroom 1 of the courthouse. Behind the teenage boy were his parents, who were wearing headsets as a Russian interpreter translated the proceedings into a microphone nearby. The parents wiped away tears as the teen issued his apology.
In October, the Hood River County District Attorney’s Office charged the suspect from Vancouver, Washington, as a juvenile.
At the hearing, Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to press felony arson charges, which would have required investigators to prove the teenager intended to start the fire.
Sewell added there wasn’t evidence to prosecute the group of teenagers accompanying the 15-year-old boy. Sewell said the boy, his parents and the group of teenagers voluntarily submitted their interviews to investigators.
Representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon State Parks gave statements before the judge, describing millions of dollars in damage.
“A lot of people spent a lot of restless nights wondering if they would have a home to go back to,” said Kent Kalsch with the Oregon Department of Transportation.
As part of his sentencing, the teenager is not allowed on Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area property, except during community service. He must also write apology letters to the community of Cascade Locks and the 150 hikers stranded in the Gorge the night the fire erupted, among others. The letters will be sent to local newspapers for publishing.
The teen and his family are still on the hook for restitution fees for injuries or loss as a result of the fire. The restitution hearing is scheduled for May 17.
Juvenile court records are protected from public release by state confidentiality laws, except under unusual circumstances. Little was known about the case and teenage suspect until the hearing. A legal assistant with the defense team said there was secrecy even within the firm because of the high-profile nature of the case.
After the fire, many people used social media to post threats of violence against the suspect. Sewell decided not to release the juvenile’s name in October.
“When you’re dealing with reckless behavior — a 15-year-old engaging in reckless behavior — probation is not the expected response or disposition, but certainly is very normal,” said Gary Bertoni, an attorney of criminal juvenile law who has worked in the juvenile court system for 40 years.
“Community safety plays a significant component in the juvenile system and philosophy right now, but rehabilitation of the youth in delinquency cases remains a focal point,” Bertoni said. “You’re weighing risk to community, rehabilitation options, how the youth responds to rehabilitation options.”
He said all of those factors can play into a sentencing, as well as one other key factor: remorse.
“I suspect his acceptance of responsibility from the get-go was a factor,” Bertoni said.