HOOD RIVER, Ore. (CN) – The teen who tossed firecrackers into a forested ravine above a heavily populated hiking trail agreed Friday to a plea deal involving five years of probation and 1,900 hours of community service overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.
The 15-year-old boy, identified by the court only by his initials, sat silently for most of the hearing as locals, tribal members, emergency rescue personnel and officials with the U.S. Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon State Parks described the havoc he had wrought.
The fire started on Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend. It quickly spread over the steep slopes of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, jumped the mile-wide river and plunged the entire Willamette Valley under a blanket of smoke. Eventually, nearly 50,000 acres burned. On the day it ignited, the fire trapped 152 hikers overnight – all of whom emerged unscathed – and threatened both the power and water supply for the nearby Portland metro area.
Lynn Burditt, forest service manager for the Columbia River Gorge, told Judge John Olson on Friday that the fire will cost the government tens of millions in firefighting and recovery costs.
A hiker who was trapped overnight by the fire on Friday said many in the group were dressed only in bathing suits and flip flops and had no water or other supplies. The group briefly tried to sleep, according to the hiker who did not identify herself, and she said it was terrifying lying on the ground without blankets while the fire glowed on the horizon.
Martha Lamont, site coordinator for the food bank in nearby Cascade Locks, told the judge that the local economy, which depends on tourism, took a big hit from the fire.
“Hotels, restaurants, shops, everyone is down financially,” Lamont said. “People just are not coming, even though there is still beauty here.”
Tribal fishermen told the court that they make their annual income with a few weeks of fishing the nearby Herman River – the same few weeks when the fire raged.
And while the teen admitted to charges of reckless burning, criminal mischief, endangering another person and tossing lighted materials in a prohibited area, there was no evidence that he intentionally or maliciously started the forest fire, according to Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell. That meant no arson charges and no felonies.
“I was very worried that there would be physical injury or loss of life and I’m very thankful that there wasn’t any,” Sewell told the judge. “And so should he be. Because if there had been, we wouldn’t be here today.”
The teen’s lawyer, Jack Morris, backed up the claim that his client didn’t mean to start the fire.
“You can be sure that there were investigators out there looking for any little bit of criminal intent,” Morris said. “There was none.”
Judge Olson sentenced the teen to the maximum sentence available on the charges: five years of probation and 1,900 hours of community service.
At the end of the hearing, the teen stood to read an apology aloud in court.
“Every day I think about this terrible decision and its awful consequences,” he said. “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.”