Teen Who Caused Eagle Creek Fire In Columbia Gorge Ordered To Pay $36 Million

A crew member works on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail damaged in the Eagle Creek Fire. CREDIT: U.S. FOREST SERVICE
A crew member works on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail damaged in the Eagle Creek Fire. CREDIT: U.S. FOREST SERVICE

The judge in the Eagle Creek Fire case has ordered the teen boy who admitted starting the blaze to pay $36.6 million in restitution.

Oregon’s juvenile delinquency statute requires youth to fully pay any economic damages they cause to victims of the Columbia River Gorge fire. 

A lawyer for the Vancouver, Washington, teen had argued that the fine violated prohibitions on cruel and unusual punishment in the state and U.S. constitutions.  

He described the $36 million requested by prosecutors as “absurd,” given that his client was only 15 at the time he ignited the fire.

“Kids are different,” attorney Jack Morris said at a hearing last week.   

Judge John Olson disagreed.

“In short, I’m satisfied that the restitution ordered in this case bears a sufficient relationship to the gravity of the offenses for which the youth was adjudicated,” Olson wrote in a decision released Monday morning. “The juvenile restitution framework is rationally related to the juvenile delinquency goals of ‘personal responsibility, accountability and reformation within the context of public safety.’ Given the statutory safety valves, I am satisfied that the restitution scheme does not ‘shock the moral sense of reasonable people.’”

Olson ordered the boy, whose name has not been made public, to repay nine parties a total of $36.6 million.

That award appears far higher than restitution for juveniles in other comparable cases.

In California, for example, a 13-year-old girl responsible for starting the 2014 Cocos Fire, which destroyed 36 homes, was ordered to pay $40,000 in restitution for the blaze. 

Morris did not respond to a call asking whether he intends to appeal the judge’s order. 

The U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Transportation are the largest payees at $21.1 million and $12.5 million, respectively.

Other parties include multiple state agencies, the Union Pacific railroad, Allstate insurance company, and the owners and tenant of a single home that burned in the fire. 

The Forest Service claim includes $17.7 million it spent fighting the fire and mitigating hazards at Multnomah Falls, plus $3.4 million of estimated costs for ongoing work to repair bridges and trails. 

The Oregon Department of Transportation claim includes $8 million the agency has spent removing rockfall and downed trees from roads and highways in the gorge. 

Six miles of the historic Columbia River highway between Bridal Veil and Ainsworth State Park remains closed due to rock falls. ODOT projects the total cost of road clearing and repairs will top $12 million. 

The judge asked the Hood River Juvenile Department to set up a payment plan for the teen.

Olson did note in his ruling that the boy can ask the courts to declare his debt repaid after 10 years if he’s kept up his payments and done everything the court has demanded of him during that period. The boy, who pleaded guilty, has also been sentenced to five years of probation and 1,900 hours of community service. 

The Hood River County Juvenile Department said it had not yet determined a payment plan for the teen. 

Director Jim Patterson called the restitution amount “extraordinary,” but declined to answer question about what guidelines the department would use to set monthly payments. 

Hood River District Attorney John Sewell also declined to answer questions about the restitution award. 

It’s not clear how much any of the nine parties will receive. 

Tim Heuker and his brothers submitted a $100,000 claim for a 650-square-foot rental home in Warrendale, Oregon, that burned to the ground. 

His tenant, Iris Schenk, requested $5,000 for her lost belongings. 

“She lost everything,” Heuker said. “Personal stuff that can’t be replaced.” 

Heuker said making the teen pay for the damage he caused is the right thing. He’s not sure whether he’ll actually receive any payments given the amount other parties are seeking. 

“I think they’re going to try to prioritize stuff, and put stuff like ours more on the front end,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent clear on that.” 

The Eagle Creek Fire began with a smoke bomb thrown into a canyon. It burned nearly 47,000 acres on both sides of the Columbia River, an area the size of Washington, D.C. 

Copyright 2018 OPB

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