Eagle Creek Fire suspect could face jail if charged

The 15-year-old has not been arrested or charged

Oregon State Police troopers talk with young people after the Eagle Creek Fire erupted, September 2, 2017 (Courtesy: Kevin Marnell)
Oregon State Police troopers talk with young people after the Eagle Creek Fire erupted, September 2, 2017 (Courtesy: Kevin Marnell)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon State Police haven’t arrested the suspect accused of lighting a firework that started the Eagle Creek Fire on September 2, 2017, but legal experts say he could face 7.6 years in prison depending on his charges.

According to witness Liz Fitzgerald, the 15-year-old Vancouver boy lit a smoke bomb and threw it over a canyon near Punch Bowl Falls that afternoon.

Destruction on the Historic Columbia River Highway from the Eagle Creek Fire. (Sheriff Mike Reese)

“I leaned over and said ‘do you realize how dangerous that is? There’s a raging forest fire 3 miles up and this whole place is super dry,’” she told KOIN 6 News in a phone interview.

The fire, which is now burning 32,000 acres in the Columbia River Gorge, spread quickly and trapped 150 hikers in the forest overnight. Now hundreds of Multnomah and Hood River County residents have been forced to evacuate as firefighters work to protect their homes.

Oregon State Police said the district attorneys in Multnomah and Hood River Counties will ultimately decide what charges he could face.

The severity of those charges would depend largely on intent — was he being reckless or did he intentionally set out to cause a forest fire?

The only way the juvenile could be charged as an adult is if prosecutors decide to use the state’s Ballot Measure 11 statutes for arson.

Legal observers say, based on the information released so far, the only applicable crime the boy, or his friends could face would be first-degree arson.

The state’s first-degree arson statute is a bit different than all other Ballot Measure 11 crimes, such as murder and first-degree assault.

In order for first-degree arson to be a Ballot Measure 11 crime, prosecutors would have to prove that the fire was intentionally started and that the suspect(s) knew there would be a risk of serious physical injury.

If prosecutors do not believe that they would be able to prove the intent or serious physical injury risk components to the statute than the case could proceed as a non-Ballot Measure 11 arson case but would be prosecuted in juvenile court.

Ballot Measure 11 crimes come with mandatory minimum prison sentences. A conviction under first-degree arson, with Ballot Measure 11 attached, is 7.6 years in prison.

Other non-Ballot Measure 11 crimes prosecutors could purse include recklessly endangering, reckless burning, second-degree arson and criminal mischief. All of those potential charges would be handle in the juvenile court system.

“If you set off an explosion or firecracker or firework, with the intent it would burn, then most likely it would be arson,” local attorney Earnest Warren said.

According to Warren, under Oregon law, 15 year olds are treated as adults in arson cases. If the suspect is charged with arson, he’d face a minimum of 90 months behind bars if there was a threat of harm to people in the path of that fire.

“I believe under Oregon state law, it would be most difficult to defend a 15-year-old because they are treated as adults,” Warren said.

Arson could be the most serious charge, but prosecutors could also choose reckless burning. Under that charge, the suspect would be treated as a juvenile.

“He would probably have to do a prison sentence for the amount of damage done, as well as lots of counseling,” Warren said. “He could be on the hook and his parents possibly on the hook as well.”

Attorney Aiken Blitz also said under Oregon law, parents are liable for fire suppression costs and damages caused by their children. The other teenagers with the suspect on the trail could also be charged with aiding and abetting.

“They were all there, they were all a part of it,” Fitzgerald said. “He wasn’t just by himself, they were completely complicit and completely indifferent to the reality of what was happening.”