15-year-old charged for starting Eagle Creek Fire

The Eagle Creek Fire was sparked by a firework on Sept. 2

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 15-year-old suspect accused of sparking the Eagle Creek Fire was arraigned in juvenile court recently, the Oregon State Police said Thursday.

The teen, who is from Vancouver, faces charges in Hood River County of reckless burning, depositing burning materials on forest lands, unlawful possession of fireworks, criminal mischief and recklessly endangering others.

He allegedly set off fireworks along a hiking trail in the Columbia River Gorge on September 2. sparking the fire the has now burned more than 50,000 acres.

Complete coverage of the Eagle Creek Fire

“Investigators have to basically determine if there is intent or not,” Capt. Bill Fugate with OSP said. “If it was recklessly an accident or intentional. So that was one of the components of this investigation that steered the level of charges that occurred.”

All charges are misdemeanors and a legal expert source told KOIN 6 News the 15-year-old is likely only to get probation. Technically, the maximum sentence the suspect could face is a year of incarceration for each charge and that it could be ordered consecutively, but that is not historically or legally what will happen.

“I’m a little surprised that there all misdemeanor charges, that’s typically not what you see in these cases,” PSU criminology professor Mark Leymon said.

Police are not identifying the suspect for his safety.

“The juvenile received so many death threats that we definitely decided not to release his name publicly,” Fugate said.

Fugate said OSP had to hide many Facebook comments because people were saying “all kinds of horrible things to him and his family,” including throwing him in the fire.

One of many threats made on Facebook against the Eagle Creek Fire suspect (Courtesy: OSP)
One of many threats made on Facebook against the Eagle Creek Fire suspect (Courtesy: OSP)

Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the scenic area, released a statement on the charges.

Fireworks are illegal at any time on any federal lands. What happens next is for the courts to decide. This is a tragedy all around. The Eagle Creek fire has had a tremendous impact on the Gorge and Friends of the Columbia Gorge is focused on efforts to heal the land, trails, and communities affected by the fire.”

The reaction from some people KOIN 6 News talked to was mixed.

“I think he should pay the consequences for his actions and he should be charged as an adult,” said Vancouver resident Roger Wenzel, who’s visiting Cascade Locks.

“When my son was young he got into a lot of trouble and he paid for his damages,” said Lori Wenz. “And I feel the same way about the kids who got involved with all this beautiful landscape and killing all the beautiful animals in it.”

How it began

The fire near the Eagle Creek Trail in Cascade Locks erupted near the already-burning Indian Creek Trail and sent a massive plume of smoke and visible bright flames over the Columbia River Gorge, forcing the evacuation of hikers, campers and residents in more than 100 homes.

A total of 153 hikers made their way back to safety that Sunday after taking shelter overnight from the massive fire burning in the Columbia River Gorge. Everyone was accounted for and one person received medical attention for exhaustion and dehydration.

By 5 p.m. Sept. 3, Governor Kate Brown invoked the Emergency Conflagration Act to help fight the Eagle Creek Fire.

The Vancouver teen was suspected of using a firework that caused the Eagle Creek Fire, which has torched more than 48,000 acres to date and sparked the now-contained Archer Fire on the other side of the Columbia River.

The teen was contacted by officers in the parking lot of the trailhead and was interviewed, but no arrests or formal charges were made at that time.

As of Oct. 18, the Eagle Creek Fire is officially 50% contained.