Guilty plea for teen accused of sparking Oregon wildfire

A teenager who started a massive 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.

District Judge John Olson sentenced the teen to more than 2 ½ months of community service, five years of probation and restitution, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported .

The teen apologized in a statement he read in court and asked for forgiveness.

"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 (194 square kilometers) 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.

The closure of Interstate 84 and the historic Columbia Gorge 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.


Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive,