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Teen who started massive Oregon wildfire with fireworks must pay $36 million, judge rules

A wildfire burned through Oregon on Sept. 5, 2017. A judge ordered on May 21 that a teen who admitted to starting the blaze pay over $36 million in restitution. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Editor’s note: The Post has learned that this article contained several passages that were largely duplicated, some without attribution, from a story published by the Oregonian. Post policy forbids the unattributed use of material from other sources.

When a teenager hurled fireworks into a parched canyon near one of Oregon’s most scenic hiking trails, sparking a cloud of smoke to rise up toward him and his friends, some in the group reportedly giggled and recorded video, oblivious to the danger.

What came next was a wildfire that raged through the Columbia River Gorge and, eight months later, a court order mandating the teen pay more than $36 million in restitution.

Hood River County Circuit Judge John A. Olson, in an opinion released Monday, acknowledged that the teen could not pay that full amount. But the damage caused by the Sept. 2 fire was substantial: After the firework ignited dry bush, a blaze spread to more than 48,000 acres, wrecking many parts of the gorge’s recreation area and costing firefighters at least $18 million.

It would be known as the Eagle Creek fire, which burned for two months and was not 100 percent contained until Nov. 30.

The fire endangered popular landmarks such as Multnomah Falls and destroyed the Oneonta Tunnel on the Historic Columbia River Highway, about 30 miles east of Portland. It forced hundreds of people to evacuate to cities between Portland and Hood River, Ore., closed Interstate 84 for 10 days, and threatened 5,000 homes and buildings, according to the Oregonian. At least four homes were destroyed.

In Portland, ash fell from the sky like snow, evoking memories of the eruptions of Mount St. Helens in 1980, according to Willamette Week. In Cascade Locks, a summer tourist destination near the Columbia River, businesses took an estimated hit of more than $2 million, the Oregonian reported.

Police believe they know who started wildfire that made it rain ash in Oregon: Giggling teens

The teen’s mother told the Oregonian in November that the fire was “a trauma” for her 15-year-old son, who authorities at the time suspected caused the fire, and that “it was his mistake.” She didn’t elaborate, fearing public backlash against their large Ukrainian family and the boy’s school-age siblings.

In February, the teen admitted to eight counts of reckless burning of public and private property, two counts of depositing burning material on forest land, and counts of second-degree criminal mischief and recklessly endangering another hiker. He was sentenced to five years of probation and 1,920 hours of community service with the U.S. Forest Service, The Post reported at the time.

He was also ordered to write apology letters to 152 people who because of the flames were trapped on the Eagle Creek trail, as well as to the city of Cascade Locks, the Forest Service, Oregon State Parks, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and the state’s transportation department, among other groups.

As Leah Sottile reported for The Post, the teen also apologized in an Oregon courtroom earlier this year.

“Every day I think about this terrible decision and its awful consequences,” said the boy, who was identified by the judge only by his initials, A.B. “I know I will have to live with my bad decision for the rest of my life.”

And now, he must pay.

His attorneys have said that the $36 million restitution amount is steep, arguing that such a number violated the U.S. and Oregon constitutions, believing the amount to be “cruel and unusual punishment,” according to court records. But Olson in his opinion wrote the restitution was “clearly proportionate to the offense because it does not exceed the financial damages caused by the youth.”

The restitution, he wrote, includes more than $21 million on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service, $12.5 million to the Oregon Department of Transportation, more than $1.6 million to the Oregon State Fire Marshal, more than $1 million to Union Pacific Railroad and varying amounts to Oregon State Parks, Allstate Insurance and Iris Schenk, who lost her home in the fire.

Schenk’s daughter, Carrie, told KATU News shortly after their Warrendale, Ore., house burned that she saw the flames heading toward her and fled, taking only her dogs and a few personal things. Schenk went to Portland to stay with family before returning to the home to see what remained.

“Right now she doesn’t think it’s real. She thinks it’s a nightmare,” Schenk’s daughter said. “And she said she had a feeling it was gone that night when she went to bed she’s like — she had a funny feeling that it wasn’t going to be there when she woke up, and she was right.”

Olson noted in his opinion that the teen has some options for paying off the millions. The court could authorize a supervising authority to create a payment plan, he wrote. He also said it was possible for the teen to pay restitution for just 10 years if he successfully completed his probation, complied with payment plans and did not commit any other offenses.

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