Eagle Creek Fire

The Eagle Creek Fire was started by a 15-year-old boy in 2017. (flickr/U.S. Forest Service-Pacific Northwest Region)

As my friend and I held the match underneath our tinder box, constructed from bone-dry pine needles and twigs, my 12-year-old brain caused me to hesitate. Although starting this small fire for kicks and giggles in the middle of Oregon’s high desert sounded like one of my best ideas to date, I recalled my dad’s repeated warnings about fire danger and briefly considered putting the match out. But the pyromaniac in my middle-school self took control and I sparked the kindling with joy. This happiness lasted for all of 30 seconds, as my dad proceeded to burst outside in a justified state of disbelief and anger. Just like that, my mini campfire was smothered, along with my joy.

As a slightly more mature 20-year-old, I now look back on this incident with regret and realize the stupidity of my youthful actions. While millions of children play with fire (in spite of numerous warnings from adults), very few can say they’re responsible for starting one worst forest fires in Oregon history.

In 2017, the $36 million mistake of one then-15-year-old boy forever altered the landscape of the picturesque Columbia River Gorge and the future of his life and his family. While lighting fireworks with friends during the summer of 2017, the teenager started a groundfire that evolved into a 48,000 acre blaze and decimated the Gorge on both sides of the Oregon-Washington state line. 

It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the severity and origin of this fire. Witnessing the destruction of natural wonders is painful, especially when the devastation was entirely preventable. By deciding to play with fireworks on that fateful day, the unnamed minor permanently altered the remainder of his life. Dubbed by the press as an “Idiot With Fireworks” or simply “Idiot Teen,” Pacific Northwesterners wasted no time tearing the teen to shreds. The boy’s mother feared for the safety of her family due to the severity of the public’s anger toward the teen.

Playing with fireworks in a forest is a poor decision, but it is a mistake that could be made by anyone in their youth. The damage caused by this initially harmless incident is horrific, but it is a waste of energy to assign blame to a teenager who can do nothing to take back their actions. I participated in heated discussions with friends and family members about what should happen to the kid because of this one bad choice. Realizing that the same thing could have happened to me as a child, I developed sympathy for the boy. Legal punishment is just, but the destruction to the natural environment and surrounding communities won’t be healed by publicly ridiculing a child. As horrible as this event was, there is almost no chance the boy would ignite another fire in the future, making legal and character-based punishment useless. I suggest that those still angry with the boy put themselves in his shoes.

On top of a $36 million fine, the teen was sentenced to five years probation and 1,920 hours of community service, the maximum sentence for the crime. While I view the probation time and community service hours as just punishment, the $36 million is absurd and unjust. Additionally, the ridiculous sum is greater than the majority of other restitution orders in similar juvenile cases. Even though the teen can avoid paying the total fee by following the terms of his probation and payment plan for 10 years, ruling that a child is to pay $36 million is pointless. The restitution cost certainly doesn’t exceed the monetary damage of the blaze, but there’s no way the teen could possibly pay back this total. 

While the then-15-year-old certainly deserved some form of punishment for his actions, I strongly disagree with those in my community who suggested the boy deserved to have his life ruined from a single incident. The boy does not pose any risk to his community, as this is a single non-violent offense. It is certainly frustrating to witness the harm caused to our beautiful environment and neighboring communities without being able to justly assigning blame, but this is an accident that could’ve been caused by any young, immature person.