HOOD RIVER, Ore. – The 15-year-old boy who started a wildfire that torched 48,000 acres of one of the northwest’s most coveted scenic regions entered the courtroom stoically Friday. Wearing a beige suit, a black necktie and with his hair neatly combed, he admitted to all 12 of the misdemeanor charges against him, and when he spoke to the courtroom, he apologized.
He apologized seven times.
The wildfire he admitted to sparking along the Eagle Creek Trail – in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area – started Sept. 2 when he hurled a firecracker into a dry ravine as a group of friends filmed him with a cellphone. On that scorching-hot afternoon, the state was in the midst of a burn ban.
“Every day I think about this terrible decision and its awful consequences,” said the Vancouver, Washington, boy, who is being identified by the judge only by his initials, A.B. “I know I will have to live with my bad decision for the rest of my life.”
Hood River Circuit Court Judge John Olson placed him on probation for five years and required him to complete 1,920 hours of community service under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service. Financial restitution will be determined at a hearing in May.
As the fire turned the skies and lush green hillsides along the state’s northernmost edge red, it forced towns to evacuate and threatened infrastructure as winds pushed it toward the boundaries of the Portland, Oregon, metro area. Eventually it hopped across the wide waters of the Columbia River and into the forested southern part of Washington state. In the early hours, it stranded 153 hikers who huddled overnight and were escorted out the next day.
One of those hikers told the courtroom of the fear they felt when supplies could not be dropped by helicopters because of the flames. Some people, who had prepared for a day of swimming, hiked by the light of cellphones 13 miles to rescue while wearing “only swimsuits, towels and flip-flops.”
After news reports identified the fire as human-caused, outrage tinged newspaper headlines: “Idiot With Fireworks Starts Columbia River Gorge Fire,” read one; another just called him “Idiot Teen.” Online vitriol spread as quickly as the flames, with social media commenters calling for his parents to be held accountable and for heavy monetary and jail penalties.
When the fire was finally considered contained in November, it had burned up 121.4 miles of national-forest trails, according to the Forest Service. Popular trails such as Eagle Creek will not open anytime soon – or maybe not at all.
Lynn Burdett, Forest Service manager for the area, said fighting the fire cost $18 million. She said it will take another several million dollars to repair the damage.
In some ways, the story of the Eagle Creek fire mimics that of wildfires across the West. Almost exactly 115 years earlier, in September 1902, a fire now referred to as the Yacolt Burn torched 500,000 acres in Oregon and Washington – a fire rumored to have been started by a group of boys attempting to ignite a nest of wasps. Other sources say the Yacolt fire ignited in piles of logging slash.
The National Park Service estimates that as much as 90 percent of wildfires are started by people – be it kids with fireworks, sparks from railroad cars or campfires.
But while human-caused fires are not anything new, weather spawned by climate change – dry summers, hot winds gusting through canyons – are making those fires much worse, said Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist at the Oregon-based Geos Institute, a nonprofit that studies the effects of climate change. This is why the 2017 fire season was the most expensive on record, racking up $2.4 billion in suppression costs, according to the Forest Service.
Yet even as the West – from British Columbia to California – was blanketed in flames and smoke last year, researchers such as DellaSala were finding that much the region continued experiencing a historic “fire deficit.”
“When people say ‘unprecedented burning,’ it’s almost like they have selective amnesia,” he said. In the early 1900s, “it was not uncommon for the acreage burning in the West to be 10 times more what it is in most active fire seasons” currently.
During long periods of drought, fires will break out more often. But for forests, they’re “a rebirthing process,” he said. Forests that are blackened are no less healthy than those that are verdant green.
Sean Stevens, director of conservation organization Oregon Wild, said wildfires caused by people are generally smaller than those caused by lightning, which might strike in a remote area that is hard to reach by fire crews.
But “even these human-caused fires, even though they’re not natural, sometimes they’re playing a natural role in how the forest functions,” Stevens said.
Learning to accept fires, DellaSala says, can be difficult for many people – especially when smoke causes air quality to plummet. “Here I am preaching that [fires are] not a disaster ecologically…and nobody can go outside,” he said. “It’s an incredibly difficult challenge because it affects human perceptions and human health, and people will push aside the ecological importance and believe the rhetoric.”
Less than a week after the Eagle Creek fire began, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) introduced a bill that would open the protected Columbia River Gorge to salvage logging in the burned area. Conservationists say the burned trees are healthy in the ecosystem and do not need to be removed by loggers.
So if human-caused fires can be beneficial to a forest, does that mean the message of Smokey Bear – that “only you can prevent wildfires” – is dated?
Rachel Pawlitz, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said the message remains relevant even if its meaning has changed over time. “I think it gets a little bit more into that concept of you don’t want to play with fire and start a fire in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said. The Eagle Creek fire is a prime example of that.
“It’s a more nuanced message than ‘all wildfires are bad,’ ” Pawlitz said. Prescribed burns set by the Forest Service in the winter and spring months are controlled and help the forest. A wildfire set by a kid with firecrackers? “You’re creating an accident. It’s nothing like managing a landscape for fire,” she said.
But the Geos Institute’s DellaSala said it is time for a new symbol that helps people understand the good and bad sides of fires.
“I think Smokey as a symbol played his part in terms of making people aware of putting out their campfires and stirring the ashes,” he said. “The flip side is it created the image we needed to put out all fires. Smokey needs to be replaced with nature’s phoenix – the forest rising from the ashes. That’s what happens after a fire. The rebirthing process is phenomenal.”
Membership in Friends of the Columbia Gorge jumped 40 percent after the recent fire. Kevin Gorman, the group’s executive director, said he has been driving home the message to new members that “you’re going to have parts of the gorge that are going to be healthier and more vibrant for habitat. It’s nature showing us that it calls the shots – not us.”
Leah Sottile is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.