The legal consequences of starting a forest fire

Crime, News

On the Saturday of a sunny Labor Day weekend in 2017, Liz FitzGerald was out enjoying a hiking trail in the scenic Columbia River Gorge, some 70 miles east of Portland, Oregon. But the picturesque scene was ruined when she came across a group of giggling teens, one of whom was tossing a smoke bomb into Eagle Creek Canyon.

This summer was a remarkably hot and dry one in the Pacific Northwest, and FitzGerald knew what the boy was doing was dangerous. The forest was ripe for burning. Sure enough, Eagle Creek Canyon started to burn. Quickly. So quickly, in fact, the fire trapped some 150 hikers there overnight.

Two weeks after it started, the fire was only 17 percent contained. The stranded hikers were rescued the following day, but more than 500 homes were evacuated and as of September 14, portions of Interstate 84 remained closed. Smoke from the fire clouded the skies of Portland, and ash rained down on the city.

Teen hijinks, major consequences

Investigators linked the fire’s cause to the misuse of fireworks, prompting a heavy dose of online shaming for the teens involved. Meanwhile, the police identified and spoke with the teen FitzGerald had encountered. The 15-year-old, from Vancouver, Washington, was not immediately charged.

When—and if—the police do file criminal charges, what legal consequences can the teen and his friends expect? Laws vary by state, and, naturally by case. Was the fire intentional or accidental? Did anyone die? How much property was damaged? What costs come into play?

Not the first time

In 2011, Randall Nicholson was sentenced to more than a year in an Arizona state prison and fined $12,000 for starting a 282-acre fire that led to the evacuation of southeast Flagstaff.

And in 2007, two laborers in California faced felony charges for accidentally sparking the Zaca Fire, one of the largest in the state’s history. A judge eventually ruled their actions did not constitute recklessness, but they did face reduced misdemeanor charges that included up to 180 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Will they be punished?

Meanwhile, the Eagle Creek Fire teen is subject to Oregon’s history of aggressive prosecution. Past offenders have been fined as much as $3.6 million. If convicted of first-degree arson, the teen would face a mandatory 7½-half year prison sentence.

Moreover, his parents could be sued in civil court by each homeowner who was forced to evacuate or suffered property damage. Under Oregon law, the parents could be on the hook for up to $7,500 per claimant.

It seems the lesson of consequences has yet to be learned, however, as yet another fire was evidently started recently by another group of teens with fireworks near the same area. Thank goodness the Pacific Northwest rainy season is now starting in earnest, hopefully dampening enthusiasm for any more pyromaniacal hijinks.