Massive Oregon wildfire started by teen with fireworks, police say

A 15-year-old male is under investigation for causing a fire that has burned more than 30,000 acres as is still not under control

A fire burning over 30,000 acres in the Columbia river gorge just outside Portland was started by a teenager setting off fireworks on a forest trail last Saturday, police say.

Oregon state police spokesman Bill Fugate said that the suspect under investigation by police was a 15-year old-male from Vancouver, Washington.

Fugate said: “In this case we’re pretty confident that the fire was started by a firework.”

After a public appeal for witnesses yesterday, Fugate said: “We have had several people contact us, and we are continuing to gather evidence.”

Charges have not yet been laid, but could range from arson to reckless burning.

“We have to determine what his mental state was,” Fugate said.

He said that although the suspect was a minor, “we will investigate it in the same way we investigate any other crime”, adding that how the matter was prosecuted would be up to the district attorney.

Fugate said state police had conducted interviews, including with the suspect. But he did not confirm reports that the suspect confessed on the spot on Saturday when questioned by a forest service employee.

The fire, known as the Eagle Creek fire, has been burning out of control since late on Saturday afternoon, and has closed miles of Interstate 84 between the towns of Troutdale and Hood River. This highway is the main artery connecting Portland to the interior of the Pacific north-west. On Monday night, the fire crossed the Columbia river and created a beachhead in Washington, near Archer mountain.

A wildfire burning on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge on 5 September.
A wildfire burning on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge on 5 September. Photograph: Genna Martin/AP

Overnight on Tuesday, the Eagle Creek fire joined up with the Indian Creek blaze, which had been burning for some weeks.

Beginning Sunday evening, the city of Portland, less than 50 miles from the fire’s epicenter, has been sprinkled with ash and debris from the burning forests.

It and surrounding areas have also been shrouded with smoke, which has obscured the city skyline and turned the sun a vivid orange. On Monday and Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency classified Portland’s air as “unhealthy”. It warned that sensitive residents should avoid exertion, and all residents may experience health effects.

More than 600 firefighters are now battling the blaze in the gorge, a national scenic area that is a popular recreation site for visitors and locals.

Liz FitzGerald, 48 of Portland, says she witnessed the moment when the young man “casually lobbed a firecracker” into a ravine from a trail near Punch Bowl falls.

He was one of a group of “about a dozen teenagers and young adults”, and another young man in the group was filming the stunt.

She said that minutes later, “there was a huge plume of smoke billowing up and I could smell distinctly that there was a fire”.

She rushed back along the difficult trail to the trailhead carpark and alerted a forest service officer. She said she was in his vehicle with him as he pursued a grey minivan with some of the teens with it from the car park out onto Interstate 84.

“It was a car chase, without any doubt,” FitzGerald said.

She said the officer told her that the teens had confessed after they had finally stopped. She said they were brought back to the trailhead car park for further questioning by state police.

She said that while the focus in some reporting had been on the youth who threw the firecracker, she believed that the behavior of the whole group had contributed to the events.

“This whole group of kids was disconnected from reality, it wasn’t just one kid.

“Everyone in the local area is in mourning. Everyone knows the gorge. It’s paradise.

Oregon state police captain Bill Fugate during a briefing on the wildfires, which authorities believe was caused by a 15-year-old boy and friends using fireworks.
Oregon state police captain Bill Fugate during a briefing on the wildfires, which authorities believe was caused by a 15-year-old boy and friends using fireworks. Photograph: Chris Pietsch/AP

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Multnomah County sheriff had ordered six small gorge communities to evacuate and put several more at a state of heightened readiness.

There was no indication as to when evacuees might be able to return to their homes.

Elisabeth Dare, a national forest service field ranger, said that as of Wednesday afternoon, “the fire still remains at 0% containment”.

Dare says that it is impossible to say when the fire will be brought under control, but it is unlikely to be any time soon.

“It has been an explosive fire, and it has moved quickly and dramatically,” she said.

“It is likely to be going until we receive some heavy rain, when our rainy season begins.”

On Wednesday there were mixed omens in weather forecasts, according to Dare.

Helpfully, “the winds have shifted to the west, bringing cooler, moister air”, but possible thunderstorms also threatened lightning strikes, and new blazes.

But local weekly Willamette Week reported on Wednesday that many of the most iconic parts of the Gorge, including Multnomah Falls, had emerged largely unscathed.

The National Interagency Fire Service is currently recording 65 active large fires in the Western states, with Montana, California and Oregon the worst affected. The Eagle Creek fire is just one of 19 large fires burning in Oregon.

From Hood River, Dare said “It has been a really bad fire season in the west, and especially the Pacific north-west. And it comes after a brutal winter. It’s been a creepy year.”


Jason Wilson in Portland, Oregon

The GuardianTramp

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