After some legal hemming and hawing, a Hood River judge has ordered the 15-year-old boy who started last summer's Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge to pay over $36 million for the damage caused by his actions.
That number, which the teenager's lawyer, Jack Morris, claims is "frankly, is on its face, absurd," will be divvied up between the victims of the fire, including families affected by the fast-spreading blaze, Oregon Department of Transportation, and the US Forest Service. Morris called the decision "cruel and unusual punishment" for the Vancouver teen, whose family immigrated from Ukraine in 2000. Because he's a minor (and because of death threats), the teen's identity has been concealed throughout the case.
According to Hood River County Circuit Judge John A. Olson, asking a kid to cough up tens of million of dollars does not "shock the moral sense of reasonable people.'"
As an occasionally reasonable person, I am pretty shocked by this news.
Let's revisit the circumstances that led to this decision: On September 2, this teenager threw a firework near Punch Bowl Falls, a majestic stop along on the Columbia Gorge's Eagle Creek trail. He was with a group of six other teens who were filming the fireworks show and encouraging his behavior. The group bolted after the fireworks unintentionally (but unsurprisingly) set the dry forest ablaze, but a number of witnesses saw the entire series of events go down.
Immediately, this teenager and his family became the main target of the region's vicious anger over the destruction caused by the fire (that anger, it's worth remembering, included death threats). In a profile of the teen published by the Oregonian in November, his mother said her son had suffered emotional trauma from the experience, and that she was scared for her family's safety.
After the 49,000-acre fire was eventually put out, ecologists noted that the dry forest was overdue for a major fire—and that these types of wildfires are ultimately necessary and healthy for a forest ecosystem. Much like the pending Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, the devastating Eagle Creek fire was going to happen sooner or later, experts explained.
On top of this, the Columbia Gorge Scenic Area's federally mandated "governing management plan" was four years overdue for a comprehensive update. The plan, created and updated by the Columbia River Gorge Commission, is meant to prepare the changing landscape for potential threats to natural resources and shared recreational spaces. The commission is currently aiming to refresh this plan by 2020, six years after it was supposed to be updated.
Judging by the evidence, it was a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances that ignited the Eagle Creek fire: a terribly dry summer (thanks, climate change), an outdated management plan, a ticking time bomb of a healthy forest fire, and a group of reckless teens up to no good. So why are we only pointing fingers at one part of that dangerous equation?
It's not apparent if the 15-year-old has any financial backing to begin paying off the court-ordered restitution. In his written decision, Judge Olsen mentioned the teen could apply for some kind of payment plan to eventually pay the entirety of the $36,618,330.24 he now owes. Olsen also noted that state law allows juvenile defendants to stop paying off these payments after ten years, if the defendant doesn't commit any other crimes and follows the payment plan. But that's now up to the criminal justice system to set up.
In addition to the fee, the teenager was sentenced five years' probation and 1,920 hours of community service with the US Forest Service—and is ordered to write apology letters to 152 victims of the fire.
Is this really the best our legal system can do to right this irreversible wrong? A few alternatives to Judge Olsen's ruling: Banning the sale of fireworks during Oregon's driest seasons (deal with it, July 4th), burdening the kid and his fellow youths with heftier public service obligations rather than financial ones, or maybe banning all teenagers from all public spaces in general. By Olsen's standards, that last one's probably the most "reasonable."