Eagle Creek fire: At sentencing, teen apologizes to victims

This story continues Eagle Creek fire court coverage from the Feb. 17 edition of the News.

The boy who started the Eagle Creek fire heard at length about the wide-sweeping harm he caused.

The 15-year-old teen from Vancouver, Wash., admitted in court Friday to charges of reckless burning and other misdemeanor offenses stemming from the case.

Judge John Olson on Feb. 16 sentenced the juvenile to up to five years of probation and 1,920 hours of community service under U.S. Forest Service supervision, via a plea agreement.

The boy appeared before the judge dressed in a suit. His family members also attended, some wearing headphones for court translation purposes.

The teen heard roughly an hour of victim testimony.

Victim remarks

An unidentified woman who lost her home in the fire did not attend the hearing, but delivered a written comment. She expressed hopes that the boy should not go to jail, but instead learn from his actions and work in nature.

An anonymous hiker spoke about her experience as one of roughly 150 people stranded in the Eagle Creek Trail area after the fire broke out. “I hope this man has remorse for his actions and the lives he endangered that day,” she said.

Lynn Burditt, U.S. Forest Service Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area manager, said she doubted the “magnitude” of the impacts from the fire would be articulated at the hearing.

The agency spent $18.9 million on firefighting costs alone. Trespass on dangerous terrain has been a new issue; the agency logged 593 verbal warnings and issued nearly 50 citations for trespassers trying to access the fire-scarred landscape.

Kent Kalsch, an Oregon Department of Transportation manager for the area between Troutdale and Hood River, talked about the mass traffic gridlock the fire caused. Interstate 84 was closed for public safety and fire apparatus access, he said, and ODOT had to detour 360,000 people when it shut down.

David Spangler of Oregon Parks and Recreation said the fire burned about 1,000 acres of park land, and racked up about $1 million in agency costs.

Christopher Van Tilburg, of Hood River Crag Rats mountain rescue group, said the roughly 30 members who responded to aid the stranded hikers were themselves in danger, due to lack of fire training.

Van Tilburg voiced concerns about rescue needs with visitors returning to the area amid post-fire threats, like landslides.

Three women from Cascade Locks addressed the courtroom: Martha Lamont, Julie Wagner, and Sara Patrick. The town was the closest to the fire and most heavily burdened by evacuations.

Lamont, local FISH Food Bank coordinator, said, “it will affect us for a long, long time,” of the economic blow Cascade Locks suffered during its prime tourism season.

Teen’s apology

The teen, whose name was not released in court due to safety issues, read a prepared statement apologizing to everybody he harmed.

“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,” the teen 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 … I myself love spending time in nature and now I realize how much work it takes to maintain the National Forest so people can enjoy it.”

The fire broke out Sept. 2. On that hot, dry day at Eagle Creek Trail, the boy lit two fireworks — one was an aerial exploding type, the second had a longer fuse and it ignited the wildfire, according to testimony by lead attorney Jack Morris.

Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell said there was no evidence to support an arson charge, a felony, which he said required intent. Sewell 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.

Morris said the teen has no criminal history, and has been active in his local community. The boy served on church missions to Mexico and played violin in a traveling orchestra, he said.

“He’s not the type of juvenile I typically represent,” Morris said.

Morris cited a scene from the film “Saving Private Ryan” about new opportunities: “That’s essentially what the law has provided my client: a second chance.”

Olson set various conditions for the boy’s probation, such as:

No possession of weapons, fireworks, or lighters.

No accessing Gorge trails without pre-approval, except for traveling through the area by car, such as on Interstate 84.

The teen must write various apology letters, to federal, state and transportation agencies, individuals, and the “local papers.”

Restitution payments will be settled at a May 17 hearing.

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