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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Guilty plea for teen accused of sparking Columbia River Gorge wildfire

The Eagle Creek wildfire burns Sept. 5, 2017, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge near Cascade Locks, Ore. (Genna Martin / AP)
Associated Press

HOOD RIVER, Ore. – A teenager charged in juvenile court with starting an explosive wildfire in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge last fall by tossing a lit firecracker into the woods pleaded guilty Friday in a deal that spares him time in custody.

The boy, who was 15 at the time, has not been identified by authorities because of fear for his safety after an angry backlash from those who consider the scenic gorge a cherished playground on Portland’s doorstep. He appeared in Hood River County Court with his parents, who followed the hearing with the help of an interpreter.

The teen’s family emigrated to the U.S. in 2000 from Ukraine and lives in Vancouver, Washington.

He pleaded guilty to eight counts of reckless burning of public and private property, two counts of depositing burning materials on forest land, and one count each of second-degree criminal mischief and reckless endangerment of others – all misdemeanors.

District Judge John Olson sentenced the teen to more than 2 1/2 months of community service and five years of probation, the Oregonian/OregonLive reported. A hearing in May will determine the details of restitution.

The teen apologized in a statement he read in court and asked for forgiveness after listening to an hour of impact statements.

“I know I will have to live with his 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,” he said. “I now realize how important it is to think before acting because my actions can have serious consequences.”

The early September blaze grew to 75 square miles and forced evacuations, caused the extended shutdown of a major interstate highway and sent ash raining down on Portland for days.

A group of day hikers was trapped by rapidly spreading flames in the forest overnight and had to hike out 14 miles the following day.

The fire and its aftermath have cost nearly $40 million and that figure could rise because crews are still working to rebuild and reopen a number of popular hiking trails in the Eagle Creek Wilderness before the summer season. Other trails could be closed for months more.

The closure of Interstate 84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway also impacted small businesses that depend on tourism.

Environmental groups said after the hearing that it was time to focus on rebuilding the gorge. “The fire is out and the court has spoken,” Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said in a statement.

The boy’s attorney said his client has learned from the experience and is ready to move forward, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

“In my perspective, the law was applied here as it should,” said attorney Jack Morris. “I want you to know that the state has not done him any favors.”

At the hearing, Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to press felony charges, which would have required investigators to prove the teenager intended to start the fire.

There also wasn’t evidence to prosecute the group of teenagers accompanying the teen, OPB reported. Sewell said the boy, his parents and the group of teenagers voluntarily submitted their interviews to investigators.