Photo by Kirby Neumann-Rea
Friday was not a morning of business as usual at Hood River County Courthouse in light of the high-profile Eagle Creek sentencing at 9 a.m. Deputy Bob Stewart examines a woman’s bag as part of heightened security measures put into place because of the long-awaited hearing.
As of Friday, February 16, 2018
A 15-year-old boy from Vancouver, Wash., accused of starting the 48,000-acre Eagle Creek fire with a firework, admitted Friday to starting the blaze.
Judge John Olson on Feb. 16 sentenced the juvenile to five years of probation and 1,920 hours of community service, among multiple conditions such as no possession of fireworks.
The teen appeared in person at Hood River County Courthouse Friday morning, represented by lead attorney Jack Morris. It was the first court procedure in the case that officials publicly announced in advance.
“Every day I think of this terrible decision,” he said in court, apologizing to the community and vowing to work toward restoring the damage he had caused.
The name of the juvenile was not released in court due to “ongoing concerns for the safety of the juvenile and his family,” the court said in a statement.
The juvenile admitted to eight counts of reckless burning, two counts of throwing away lighted materials in a prohibited area, one count criminal mischief and one count of recklessly endangering another person.
A plea agreement between attorneys and prosecutors contained the 12 counts. Olson said the sentencing reached was the maximum possible for each offense.
Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell said investigations in the case did not give any evidence to support a felony charge, such as arson, which he said required intent.
Sewell also noted there were no deaths or serious injuries in the fire, otherwise “we’d be in a different arena.”
He said the boy had been in a group of seven people at the trail that day; however, the others with him were observers and not charged with an offense.
"It's what can be done here," Sewell said of the maximum probation and community service the plea agreement had reached.
Morris said his client and family had cooperated with detectives since the beginning of the case. The boy had no juvenile criminal record and was active in his school and community, Morris said.
Victims who testified on impacts from the fire included federal, state agencies, Hood River Crag Rats, a hiker who was trapped on the trail, and Cascade Locks residents.
Lynn Burditt, U.S. Forest Service Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area manager, described millions of dollars in costs the agency has incurred due to the fire. She said she doubted the “magnitude” of the impacts from the fire would be articulated at the hearing.
Olson noted the severity of damage the defendant had caused, including “a natural treasure scarred for a generation.”
The blaze, which started along Eagle Creek Trail Sept. 2, forced evacuations, closed Interstate 84 for about two weeks, and scorched more than 75 square miles. Most of the Columbia River Historic Highway and waterfall alley trails remain off-limits due to volatile conditions, such as potential landslides.
Restitution payments related to the case will be addressed at a hearing scheduled for May 17 at 9:30 a.m. at the courthouse. By statute, the court said, restitution may be established within 90 days of Friday’s judgment.
People who believe that they have a claim for restitution in the case can mail information regarding their financial loss to the Hood River County Juvenile Department at 309 State St. in Hood River.
It was a juvenile proceeding; the defendant was not tried as an adult. The teen will not serve time in a juvenile correctional facility, via the judge’s decision.