Growing tired of a sweltering heat wave, Portland resident Liz FitzGerald was determined to cool off. She longed to be in water, so she journeyed to Punch Bowl Falls after recalling her friends’ account of splashing in the pool at the base of the falls the month before. On her way up the trail, she noticed a sign that warned a wildfire had closed the trail ahead at three miles. Retaining hope of a refreshing dip, she marched on.
That Saturday afternoon, a group of teenagers roamed the trails by Punch Bowl Falls, mindlessly playing with fireworks during the region’s annual dry spell. They passed FitzGerald on their way down the trail as one of them filmed another tossing a smoke bomb down into the ravine. FitzGerald was not going to let them get away with it.
“Do you realize how dangerous it is what you just did?” she asked. She informed them of the closed trail up ahead because of a nascent wildfire. She remarked on the dryness of the area, but the kids didn’t react more than a few giggles from the girls in the group. FitzGerald trotted onward as the teenagers left down the trail.
She spotted smoke rising from the smoke bomb and, although she still longed to reach the falls, she realized the severity of the situation and turned her thoughts to escape. A couple passed by on their way down the mountain when FitzGerald approached them by stating that she had just witnessed a teenager throwing a firecracker down into the ravine and believed it was smoking. The couple confirmed they had seen the teenagers up at Punch Bowl Falls lighting off firecrackers.
A shot of adrenaline lighted her. Liz darted down the mountain, past where she had seen the teens and looked down. Smoke and the smell of trees’ burning bark consumed her. The forest was ablaze. She dashed down the trail warning everyone in sight that the forest was on fire. She encountered the kids once more and asked if they realized they had just started a forest fire. One of them nonchalantly replied, “Well, what are we supposed to do about it now?” She yelled back to call the fire department as she rushed to the parking lot.
Ms. FitzGerald took it upon herself to make sure these kids didn’t get away with starting the biggest fire of the region’s 2017 dry season. She immediately reported the incident to law enforcement and chased after the group in the police car. The kids were about to escape in a minivan, the driver gleefully basking in the suspense of it all. Eventually, they were caught and interviewed. Not one sign of remorse visible on their faces; it was just a typical day.
The fire raged on at the onset of a holiday weekend, endangering the lives of 153 hikers, wildlife, and the entire town of Cascade Locks. The primary suspect identified is a 15-year old from Vancouver, Washington who could face jail time should the district attorneys of Multnomah and Hood River Counties decide to press charges. Although no one was hurt, the 153 hikers were stranded overnight waiting for rescue to come. Many in nearby towns were evacuated, and the fire gained strength, swallowing nearly 50,000 acres of forest by late September. Firefighters have contained the fire by nearly 50%.
Will Teens Face Consequences?
Investigators are currently looking into the motivation behind the Eagle Creek inferno. Several charges are possible and which ones, if any, the Vancouver teen will face depends on the level of intent. He could face arson charges, reckless endangerment and/or burning charges, and criminal mischief charges.
A conviction for felony first-degree arson can lead to a maximum 20-year prison sentence and a maximum fine of $375,000. Considering the suspect in question is a minor, it is unlikely he will face maximum penalties if he is convicted of any crime; however, three minors in 2015 were charged with first and second-degree arson and several other offenses after igniting a fire that destroyed a historic monument in Eugene. Due to a plea deal, the first-degree arson charges were dropped.
Could the Parents Face Consequences?
If the suspect is charged, a judge could order him to pay restitution for damages. The judge can also order the parents to pick up a tab, although restitution is hardly a drop in the bucket of the expenses incurred as a result of the damages. The most the parents may be ordered to pay should the child be charged with willful misconduct is $7,500, which doesn’t even pay for a full day of firefighting.
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