The 15-year-old Vancouver, Washington youth who set off smoke bombs in the Columbia River Gorge last September and sparked the massive Eagle Creek Fire was sentenced in Hood River County Circuit Court Friday to 1,920 hours community service and five years probation. He will spend his community service volunteering with the U.S. Forest Service.
According to the Willamette Week, locals spoke in court about the impact the nearly 50,000 acre fire had on their lives. In the aftermath of the fire, nearby highways were shut down, hikers were stranded in burning forests, businesses were shut down, homes were evacuated, and thousands of acres of recreation areas were destroyed.
The teen reportedly faced harassment and death threats after the incident, which was observed by a hiker. In court, he admitted to reckless burning, criminal mischief, and endangering human life, but with no evidence of criminal intent, prosecutors declined to charge him with felony arson.
On Friday, he addressed the court:
I want to express how sorry I am for what I did," he said. "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 that were trapped, I am sorry to the people who worried about their safety and their homes that day, and for weeks afterward. I am truly sorry about the loss of nature that 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 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. I now realize how important it is to think before acting because my actions can have serious consequences. I, myself, love spending time in nature and I now realize how much work it takes to maintain the National Forest so people can enjoy it.
I sincerely apologize to everyone who had to deal with this fire, I cannot imagine how scary it must have been for you. I know I have to earn your forgiveness and I will work hard to do so and one day, I hope I will. Thank you for giving me a chance to speak. This has been a big learning experience for me and I take it very seriously. I apologize with all my heart to everyone in the Gorge.
Before the fire had even stopped burning, Oregon Republican Rep. Greg Walden introduced a bill in Congress to expedite salvage and reforestation projects in the Columbia River Gorge and other National Scenic Areas after fires like Eagle Creek. Environmentalists (and scientists) argue that salvage logging would actually increase later fires by ridding the ecosystem of more mature, fire-resistant trees, but we all know the GOP doesn't give two fucks about science. The bill is currently wallowing in subcommittee.
"This spring will be a key time in the healing and rebuilding process for the Gorge," said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, in a statement after the court's decision. "And a lot of help will be needed from mobilizing volunteers to help stop invasive species from spreading in the burned areas to identifying funding to help the U.S. Forest Service and its partners in assessing and rebuilding trails damaged by the fire."
In a phone call later, Lang told me that while he is optimistic about the recovery, some trails likely won't ever be repaired. Still, he added, "The Gorge has been resilient for tens of thousands of years. Fire is a part of the natural ecoystem. Even though this was human-caused and a tragedy for the community, forests recover."
The cost of firefighting and cleanup of the blaze is an estimated $38 million.