Day hikers who saw the first stirrings of a Columbia River Gorge wildfire that has burned 3,200 acres say it was apparently started by two teenage boys throwing firecrackers off a cliff.
The wildfire has consumed fir forests in one of Oregon's most scenic areas, stranded more than 150 hikers overnight, and now threatens the gorge town of Cascade Locks. As the fire enters its third day, witness testimony and video footage are beginning to paint a clearer picture of what happened Saturday afternoon to start the blaze.
Kevin Marnell, a Portland electrical engineer, took cellphone footage of two teenagers being detained by Oregon state troopers near the Cascade Salmon Fish Hatchery. A witness at the scene identified them as the people who tossed the fireworks that started the blaze.
Law-enforcement officials have declined to discuss details of the suspects who they believe started the fire. But Oregon State Police told KATU-TV on Sunday that one suspect is a teenage boy.
Marnell says another hiker spotted two teenagers tossing firecrackers off the cliffside of Eagle Creek Trail on Saturday afternoon. (That hiker confirmed to WW that she witnessed the boys throwing fireworks, but she has not yet agreed to discuss the story further.)
"She caught them," he says. "One kid was taping it with a video phone and the other kid was doing the firecracker lighting and throwing."
Marnell says that the fire's location—in heavy brush in the 200-foot drop-off between the trail and Eagle Creek—suggests the boys were flinging firecrackers off the side of the cliff.
"We think that they threw it off the cliff," he says. "She saw the kids throw the firecracker and scolded them at first. Then she ran to get the police."
Marnell first realized something was wrong around 3:30 pm Saturday, as he waking down the Eagle Creek trail from a swim in Punchbowl Falls.
"We heard a loud bang that we thought was a shotgun blast," he says. "It later turned out to be a firecracker. I saw a bunch of smoke coming out of this brushy, woodsy area. We got out of there just before it was too late."
At the fish hatchery, Marnell filmed sheriff's deputies detaining two teenagers on the curb, along with the minivan they were riding away in. (He started filming around 4:40 pm.) "It looks like at some point their parents showed up," Marnell says. "But it didn't look like [police] were going to make an arrest."
Leighton, a friend of Marnell's who declined to give his last name, says he saw the forest below the trail go up in flames shortly after the fireworks sounded.
"We heard that big blast," Leighton says. "By the time I walked past, I saw a tree go up in flames. You're walking along a cliff, 200 feet above the creek. It was putting out a lot of smoke, to the point it was difficult to see the path in front of you.
As we were walking out," he adds, "there were people still walking in. We warned them to turn around—especially those with children. They mostly ignored us.
"We saw a lot of them on video being rescued the next day."