SALEM, Ore. – A 15-year-old boy who allegedly started a wildfire by tossing fireworks along a hiking trail in Oregon's scenic Columbia River Gorge, with the blaze causing evacuations, the closing of an interstate highway and causing ash to rain down on Portland, has been charged with several offenses, authorities said Thursday.
He's charged with reckless burning, depositing burning materials on forest lands, criminal mischief and recklessly endangering other persons, Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell said in a statement. The boy, from Vancouver, Washington, was not named.
The fire that started Sept. 2, and which continues to smolder, burned 76 square miles (197 sq. kilometers) of forestland, devastating beloved day trails around dozens of crystalline waterfalls in Portland's backyard. Witnesses had seen the boy, who was with other youths, tossing fireworks off the trail. A fire quickly started, stranding dozens of hikers who had to retreat into a safe area and wait out the night before being evacuated the next day. Flames leapt from the trees on the gorge's steep slopes, and winds carried sparks across the broad Columbia River, starting another fire on the Washington state side.
Interstate 84, a major east-west corridor that runs along the Gorge, was shut down, and communities like nearby Cascade Locks, which depend on visitors to inject money into the local economy, suffered a severe setback.
The fire removed vegetation, underbrush and tree roots that support the Columbia Gorge, and now authorities expect landslides and rockslides with additional rain. The Historic Columbia River Highway and State Trail was damaged by fire and rockfall and remains closed. The uncontained portion of the fire is in steep terrain and fire managers do not expect it to spread further, authorities said.
The charges came after a criminal investigation by the Oregon State Police assisted by U.S. Forest Service investigators.
As the fire took such a toll, many enraged commentators on news media web sites called for charges to be filed, and for the boy's family to pay some of the millions of dollars in costs to fight the fire.
"What happens next is for the courts to decide," said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a group dedicated to protecting the area. "Friends of the Columbia Gorge is focused on efforts to heal the land, trails, and communities affected by the fire."
The boy was caught due to the efforts of a hiker, Liz FitzGerald of Portland, who said she saw a boy toss a smoke bomb into a ravine as girls with him giggled and another boy took video with his cellphone. FitzGerald continued up the trail and then looked back, saw smoke was growing, and decided to run back to the parking lot and warn others.
"I passed the teenagers at that point," FitzGerald told Willamette Week newspaper. "It was a smaller group of maybe seven or nine. Just as I was passing them I said 'Do you realize you just started a forest fire?' and the kid said, 'Well, what are we supposed to do about it now?' And I yelled over my shoulder 'Call the freaking fire department!'"
After she got to the parking lot by the Eagle Creek Trailhead, she told a law enforcement officer what she had seen. He stopped a van carrying some of the group of youths as they attempted to leave in a van.
The fire was one of the worst to hit the U.S. West during a particularly intense fire season.
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