The Vancouver, Wash. teen who tossed two lit fireworks that started a wildfire in the Columbia River Gorge last summer won't spend a single day in jail. Instead, he will spend 1,920 hours volunteering with the U.S. Forest Service.
The boy, 15 years old, with dark hair and a baby face, was identified only by his initials in court—officials feared for his safety after he received online threats including lynching.
He sat silently for most of the hearing, swiveling slightly in his chair as half a dozen locals and officials described the impact the Sept. 2 blaze had on their lives and on the forest.
At the end of the hearing, the boy stood and read an apology aloud.
"I apologize with all my heart to everyone in the Gorge," he said with a slight accent.
His parents sat behind him, never removing their coats and wearing headphones through which two Russian interpreters described the proceedings.
The courtroom was packed to capacity, with an overflow room set up where observers watched the hearing via livestream.
Circuit Judge John Olson said he had spent several hours the night before reading all the victim impact statements that had been mailed in. A clerk read two aloud before people several people stepped to the front of the room to tell the judge how the fire had personally affected them.
Sara Patrick, a tribal fisherman whose family runs Brigham Fish Market in Cascade Locks, struggled through tears to describe the fire's devastating effect. Instead of serving food to tourists on Labor Day weekend, Patrick and her family were spending 12 to 14 hours a day cooking for the firefighters who were saving their home and business.
"That's one of our busiest weekends," Patrick said. "That's how we survive through the winter."
A hiker trapped by the blaze on the Eagle Creek Trail described a 13-mile overnight march to flee the fire, joined by chipmunks and lizards who were also using hiking trail to escape.
Officials with the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon State Parks detailed the millions it will cost to help the area to recover.
The 35,000-acre fire was responsible for highway shut-downs, stranded hikers, school closures, home evacuations and the indefinite shuttering of countless Columbia River Gorge hiking trails. An overwhelmed Forest Service is now relying on the work of volunteers and crowfunding campaigns to help restore the thousands of acres of charred land.
Hood River District Attorney John Sewell said that state, local and federal investigations didn't turn up any evidence that the boy had intentionally or maliciously started the fire that eventually burned 48,000 acres.
The teen admitted to reckless burning, criminal mischief, endangering another person and tossing lit material into a prohibited area. But without evidence of criminal intent, prosecutors couldn't charge him with arson or any other felony.
Circuit Judge John Olson handed down the maximum sentence on the charges—five years' probation and 1,920 hours of community service—but Sewell acknowledged that many would feel that the outcome was too lenient.
"Some will argue that's not enough," Sewell told the court, "but it's what can be done here."