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Restitution Could Top $36 Million For Teen Who Ignited Eagle Creek Fire

<p>The Eagle Creek Fire spread through the Columbia River Gorge, September 4, 2017.</p>

Courtesy of InciWeb


The Eagle Creek Fire spread through the Columbia River Gorge, September 4, 2017.

The 15-year-old boy who pleaded guilty to igniting the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge last September could be required to pay more than $36 million in restitution to 11 parties related to fire damage.

Judge John Olson did not reach a decision on how much to award in court and said he would issue a written order on the amount of restitution as early as Friday. 

The unnamed Vancouver, Washington, teen did not attend the restitution hearing in Hood River County Thursday morning. He was represented by his attorney Jack Morris.

Morris described the $36 million figure as "absurd." In filings and in court, Morris argued that Oregon's restitution statute, which requires judges to impose the full amount of restitution sought by victims, is unconstitutional when it is applied to juvenile defendants.

"Kids are different," Morris said. "They are entitled to individual consideration."

He noted that his client is considered indigent and urged the judge to award a smaller amount that his client could more plausibly pay back.

"We are not saying that no restitution should be imposed," he said.

Morris noted U.S. Supreme Court rulings in death penalty and life without parole cases that have held that juveniles are entitled to different consideration by the courts.

He suggested that the restitution order could prevent the teen from qualifying for a home loan, car insurance and other forms of credit.

"The actual act here is throwing a couple of firecrackers," he said. "It's a 15-year-old boy that did something incredibly stupid."

Attorneys for the state pushed Olson to impose the full amount and defended the constitutionality of Oregon's restitution law.

They noted that in juvenile cases, a judge can forgive a dependent's obligation to pay restitution after 10 years if the defendant meets certain criteria.

"There is an end point in 10 years," said Hood River District Attorney John Sewell. "It is not as draconian and absolutist as counsel says."

The U.S. Forest Service reported the largest damages from the fire at $21,113,755. The Oregon Department of Transportation reported $12,500,000, the Oregon State Fire Marshall $1,643,035 and the Union Pacific Railroad $1,048,877. Oregon State Parks, Allstate and four private property owners sought smaller amounts of restitution.

Olson said he would take time to consider the constitutional arguments before reaching a decision in the case.

He noted that the highest amount of restitution he'd previously been aware of awarded in a juvenile case was just $114,000.

"It is an extraordinary amount of restitution,"Olson said. "It is an extraordinary amount of loss."

Olson sentenced the teenager in February to five years of probation and 1,920 hours of community service with the U.S. Forest Service.

The boy and his family have cooperated with investigators, and in February he pleaded guilty to 12 charges, including reckless burning, criminal mischief and reckless endangerment.

At the time of the fire, witnesses described seeing a child lobbing a firecracker down a canyon before the area erupted in smoke and flames. More than one hundred hikers and dogs were stranded in the area overnight.

The fire burned nearly 49,000 acres. It was extinguished in November 2017, destroying homes and trails in the gorge. It also forced businesses to close, displaced people for days and shut down both Interstate 84 and the Historic Columbia River Highway. Portions of the highway remain closed.

Gorge residents impacted by the fire left the hearing disappointed. 

Paul Smith, who lives near Stevenson on the Washington side of the Gorge, said he didn't seek financial restitution for his losses in the fire but had hoped for a chance to speak at the hearing.

Smith evacuated his farm when the fire jumped across the Columbia River and began burning on the Washington side of the gorge.

"We had two dogs, five horses and 10 chickens," he said. 

Smith said he had to put down his 32-year-old grey appaloosa mare, Pondie, due to stress and smoke inhalation.

"I'm not seeking restitution," he said. "I just wanted to say my piece."

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Amelia Templeton is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting, covering Portland city hall, justice and local news. She was previously a reporter for EarthFix, an award-winning public media project covering the environment in the Northwest.