HOOD RIVER, Ore. — A judge ordered a Vancouver teenager to pay $36.6 million in restitution after the teen pleaded guilty earlier this year to starting last September's massive Eagle Creek wildfire in the Columbia Gorge.
The judge had delayed the decision during a hearing in Hood River on Thursday, May 17, after the teenager's defense attorney claimed that the statute requiring full restitution is unconstitutional if imposed on a juvenile.
The judge decided that the restitution requested in the case was in line with the seriousness of the offenses committed by the teen. He said, in a written ruling, that the restitution scheme meets the juvenile delinquency goals of "personal responsibility, accountability and reformation with in the context of public safety."
The judge said the court finds that the teen is unable to pay the judgment in full, and authorized the Hood River Juvenile Department to establish a payment schedule. The judge said factors such as the teen's financial resources and other obligations will be taken into consideration when determining an appropriate payment plan.
Photos: Eagle Creek Fire
As part of his ruling, the judge also said "the court can grant a full or partial satisfaction of the restitution judgment after 10 years" if the teen has successfully completed probation, doesn't commit additional offenses and complies with the payment plan.
Restitution was awarded to the following individuals and groups:
- $5,000 to Iris Schenk
- $8,111 to Allstate Insurance
- $31,551 to Oregon State Parks
- $100,000 to Heuker Properties
- $168,000 to Trails Club of Oregon
- $1,048,878 to Union Pacific Railroad
- $1,643,035 to Oregon State Fire Marshall
- $12,500,000 to ODOT
- $21,113,755 to US Forest Service
The wildfire burned more than 48,000 acres in the scenic Columbia River Gorge and Mt. Hood National Forest. A representative with the U.S. Forest Service said 121 miles of national forest trails were impacted. A group of hikers had to be rescued after the fire started and several structures burned.
The Trails Club of Oregon lost two of its dorms in the fire. They burned near Nesika Lodge. President Sheryl Wagner said the teen would be welcome to help rebuild.
"We welcome him on any of our restoration work parties at the lodge and on the gorge trails which we will be holding in the next couple of years," Wagner said.
According to a representative with the Oregon Department of Transportation, crews removed more than 12,000 trees to make the area safe. The fire, which happened during peak tourism season, also had a negative impact on many businesses in the area.
The boy was 15 years old when he started the fire on Sept. 2, 2017 while igniting fireworks, according to Oregon State Police. He pleaded guilty in court on February 16 and was sentenced to five years probation and 1,920 hours of community service with the U.S. Forest Service.
"I sincerely apologize to everyone who had to deal with this fire, I cannot imagine how scary it must have been for you," he wrote in a letter in February. "I know I have to earn your forgiveness and I will work hard to do so and one day, I hope I will."
The wildfire affected Hood River and Multnomah counties, but Oregon's juvenile code demands that legal proceedings take place in the county where the illegal act originally occurred.
"That is a lot of money for a 16-year-old, however I think we need to be accountable for our actions," said Brenda Wood of Cascade Locks. "I think he should remember what he did and teach others the dangers of it. I think the other people who were with him and who are adults, should be accountable too"
"It's good because maybe it'll prevent other people from doing the same stupid act because look what happened, it's pretty much destroyed his future," said resident Martha Lamont. "I wouldn't want to see him serving prison time, but this is definitely fair."