The Hood River County District Attorney’s Office filed charges Thursday against the teenage suspect in the Eagle Creek Fire investigation. The 15-year-old boy from Vancouver, Washington, faces misdemeanor charges for allegedly starting the blaze.
The teenager allegedly lobbed a firecracker down a canyon, igniting the fire that torched more than 48,000 acres in the Columbia River Gorge. The Eagle Creek Fire forced hundreds of area residents to evacuate and caused school delays and businesses to shut down.
Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell has decided not to release the juvenile’s name. Oregon law requires the government to keep juvenile records confidential except under unusual circumstances.
If he’s found “in delinquency” — the juvenile equivalent of guilty — the teenager could be required to spend time in a juvenile correctional facility and perform community service. His criminal record will be wiped clean once he turns 18.
But a judge will likely order the teen and his parents to pay some amount of restitution for firefighting costs and damages, according to legal experts. In most cases like this, the ordered restitution amount is far lower than the full cost of the fire.
The teen was charged with misdemeanors instead of felonies likely because of the investigators’ findings that he did not intend to ignite the wildfire. In order to file felony arson charges, the investigators would have needed to establish that the teen’s motive was to start a fire.
Though witnesses to the start of the Eagle Creek Fire said there was a group of teens at the scene when the Sept. 2 fire ignited, Sewell’s office is not prosecuting any of the other teenagers in the group.
Sue Nolan, a landowner in the Dodson area where the fire destroyed several buildings and a few homes, told OPB on Thursday that she would like to see the teen do restoration work in the Gorge as part of his punishment.
“I would rather see him out having to do some refurbishing work. Maybe some replanting and clean up,” Nolan said. “I think that’s what the judge should do. He should experience what he did, not just sit in detention.”
Nolan’s father immigrated from Switzerland to Dodson around 1929. Her nephew and his family still live in the area, and they lost a building in the Eagle Creek Fire.
Despite the damage, she said she was surprised when she returned to the area to view her property.
“I thought there would be more damage than there was,” Nolan said. “It jumped around a lot. It was sad to see how much had burned, but it could have been a whole lot worse.”
Despite her family’s loss, Nolan said she does not harbor resentment for the teen who started one of the worst fires in Oregon this year.
“It’s annoying, but I don’t hate him or anything. I raised two kids,” she said. “I know sometimes they do things without thinking about it first.”
As the Eagle Creek Fire spread and did damage to one of Oregon’s treasured scenic areas, social media and other online forums became filled with calls for harsh justice against the teenager — including death threats.
“I think people who are making death threats at this child should stop it,” Nolan said. “It’s not helping anything. I don’t want him to be hurt.”
The most important outcome for Jeremy Bechtel, general manager of Thunder Island Brewing, is that that the suspect understand how much the fire harmed Cascade Locks.
“It’s important for me to have him understand that the impact went further than having some trees burning up” Bechtel said. “My employees were unable to work for two weeks, living paycheck to paycheck. Some of them were having a difficult time making rent and that sort of thing.”
Michael Liang, Conservation Director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said the fire underscores the need for more education, for adults as well as children, on how to behave while recreating on public lands.
“It’s first of all, across the board, illegal to bring fireworks onto federal land. So from the inception, laws were broken,” he said.
More than 3 million people visit the scenic area each year. In response to swelling crowds, the group recently launched a campaign encouraging people to use good trail etiquette and observe “leave no trace” practices.
“We have to be very mindful of the impacts that we bring into the gorge,” Liang said, “and try to have the lightest touch possible.”
As of this week, the Eagle Creek Fire remains around 50 percent contained. The latest figures show the state and the U.S. Forest Service have spent approximately $19.24 million on managing the fire.
Fire officials say most fire suppression efforts are now complete, and they expect the fire to completely die out with fall and winter rains over the next several weeks.
“The gorge will not be the same at all in my lifetime,” Bechtel said. “And that’s really hard to swallow.”
Ryan Haas and Kim Freda contributed to this report.