HOOD RIVER, Ore. >> A teenager who started a huge wildfire in the scenic Columbia River Gorge in Oregon could owe more in restitution that he will earn in a lifetime.
Eleven requests for restitution totaling almost $37 million have been submitted to a court. That covers the costs of firefighting, repair and restoration to the gorge and damage to homes.
At a hearing today, the lawyer for the 15-year-old defendant urged Hood River County Judge John Olson to impose a “reasonable and rational” amount of restitution. The attorney, Jack Morris, said ordering a boy who is indigent to pay $37 million is “absurd.”
The judge said he has reviewed prior juvenile restitution cases in Oregon, and the largest figure he could find was for $114,000. He said he needed more time to review the case, and would issue a written ruling, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported .
“It is an extraordinary amount of restitution being sought,” Olson said.
The teen from Vancouver, Washington, did not attend the hearing. He pleaded guilty in February to reckless burning of public and private property and other charges. Olson sentenced him to community service and probation, and the boy had to write more than 150 letters of apology to those affected by the fire that burned 75 square miles (194 square kilometers).
The teen said he threw one firework that exploded in the air along a trail and a second one that had a longer fuse and ignited brush when it hit the ground.
The flames spread quickly, forcing evacuations and the extended shutdown of a major interstate highway. Beyond the temporary inconveniences, the fire blackened the crown jewel of an outdoors-loving region for years to come.
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area attracts more than 3 million tourists a year and holds North America’s largest concentration of waterfalls. The fast-moving blaze ravaged popular hiking trails and marred stunning vistas.
Anger at the boy was so intense that authorities withheld his name to protect his safety. He’s listed in court papers as A.B.
“I get to look at torched Angel’s Rest every day. It will never be the same,” farmer Paul Smith said before today’s hearing, referring to a bluff. “You can’t financially quantify the damage he’s done.”
The U.S. Forest Service is seeking $21 million in payments and the Oregon Department of Transportation wants $12.5 million. The other requests for restitution range from $4,563 to $1.6 million.
The restitution is solely the responsibility of the teen, not his parents, who came to the U.S. from Ukraine.
State law allows the Oregon Department of Revenue to garnishee the teen’s bank accounts or paychecks. If he’s due refunds on his tax returns, the state could take those. If he wins the lottery, the state also could collect all of his winnings.
Hood River County District Attorney John Sewell said state law gives the judge some leeway in restitution cases, such as halting payments after 10 years if the teen stays out of trouble or deciding not to garnish wages.
“It’s not as draconian and absolutist as defense argues,” Sewell said.