Portland resident Liz FitzGerald witnessed a teenage boy throwing the firecrackers that are believed to have sparked a wildfire now tearing through more than 10,000 acres of the Columbia River Gorge. She alerted police.
This afternoon, Oregon State Police announced that the suspect is a 15-year-old boy from Vancouver, Wash.
FitzGerald first told her story to Oregon Public Broadcasting this morning. She then gave a detailed recounting of the events of Sept. 2 to WW.
Here's her account of what she saw.
"It was 100 degrees in town and I wanted to be in some water. Some friends of mine had gone up to Punch Bowl [Falls] about a month earlier and I'd seen video of them jumping in the waterfall and it looked awesome to me.
I decided to go up there because of the water and the last time I had been up there was 20 years ago because the trail is kind of sketchy and made me nervous because of the 400 foot drop.
I went up and saw the sign that said the trail was closed at 3 miles because of the fire.
When I came up to 1.5 miles up the trail, I came upon a large group of teenagers. They were kind of flanking the trail and I walked right in between them. I was standing right next to one of them who was filming and about four people away from me I saw a young boy lob a smoke bomb down into the ravine.
I said 'Do you realize how dangerous it is what you just did? They have the trail closed up ahead because of a raging wildfire.' I wanted to underscore the severity of what they just did. I said 'This whole area is so dry.'
They didn't say anything. And after he lobbed it I thought I heard a couple of girls giggle and the guy just filmed it like it was no big deal. And then they just continued down the trail.
I continued to walk up. I looked and saw smoke coming up from the smoke bomb and I just thought it was just from that. It was kind of crazy but I still had it on my mind about getting up to the water. I walked another two minutes or so and I thought 'If I get stuck in a wildfire because I was so determined to get to this watering hole, I would feel like a total idiot.'
Right when that came to me, I saw this couple coming down from the mountain and I said to them, 'I just saw a teenager throw a firecracker down into the ravine and I think its smoking.' And they said 'Yea, we saw them up at Punch Bowl lighting off firecrackers.'
I turned around and I started running down the mountain and I ran past where I had seen them and I looked down and at that point it was huge amounts of smoke and I could smell that the forest was on fire.
I just ran down the whole mountain telling people as I came by them that there was a fire. I told them 'I saw someone throw a firecracker, and it is smoking. I think it's on fire, I saw smoke, I don't know for sure that its on fire.' Because I didn't see flames but I saw billowing smoke and could smell the fire.
I kept running down and I don't know that people were heeding my call.
I passed the teenagers at that point. It was a smaller group of maybe seven or nine. Just as I was passing them I said 'Do you realize you just started a forest fire?' and the kid said, 'Well, what are we supposed to do about it now?' And I yelled over my shoulder 'Call the freaking fire department!'
I ran to the parking lot, didn't see anybody, started running through the parking lot and came across law enforcement. I said 'I need to report, I think there's a fire. I saw a kid throw a firecracker and I saw all the smoke.' He immediately called it in.
He then started getting my story and as I was telling him I said 'Can we move and get to the trailhead because I'm afraid they're going to get into one of the cars parked closer to the trail head and I don't want them to just drive away.'
We started walking, and it was about twelve paces that we took, and I saw a minivan go by. It was all tinted windows in the back windows but I saw the female in the passenger side and I did not recognize her but she had an expression on her face that looked like she was getting away with something. She looked like she was having fun and she was excited about getting away. That's what my gut told me. I looked at them and I said 'I think that they're in that car.'
He said 'Are you comfortable getting in the car with me?' and I said 'Yes.'
We ran to the law enforcement car and we jumped in and he turned on the sirens. And the kids blazed through the parking lot with all these pedestrians and kids and stuff walking up to get to the trail.
The law enforcement officer is obviously delayed because he isn't wanting to mow people over. We can't see the minivan and then we can see them. Just as we were getting onto the onramp to the I-84 heading east he was right on their tail and they pulled over.
I had described the kid that I had seen throw the firecracker, caucasian, five-foot-six, fit, brown hair, shorts, he either didn't have a shirt on or he was wearing a muscle tee or something.
The Forest Service guy was interviewing the kid in front of the car I was in and I couldn't hear anything he was saying. The Forest Service guy came back to the car and looked at me expectantly and I said I can't say for sure if it was him because this kid was wearing a blue t-shirt.
So, that kid went back into the minivan and another kid came out of the minivan and I had never really seen the other kid. Then he [the Forest Service officer] came back and I said 'I don't really recognize him' and he said 'Well, he just confessed that it was them who did it.'
Then the state patrol came. I went back to my car to get my phone and came back and at that point state patrol was there asking them questions. And I gave my report.
Then we were looking over our shoulder and could see smoke. We could see that it was full-on a fire and the smoke was just billowing up.
I felt like I was having a nightmare and I still feel like I am because they had no reaction that I could see. I don't know these kids but just looking at them… and when they walked down the mountain, when I came upon them they were walking a very casual pace down the mountain.
I felt like I was in a nightmare because these kids were not reacting the way I felt normal people would react. It was all very frustrating.
I really felt like it's not just that one boy that lobbed it. He had a friend that filmed it. There was a whole group of kids who found it funny to do this. The girl's expression as she drove by. None of them seemed at all to understand what they were doing.
When I sat and watched the kids being interviewed by the police, I don't know what they were feeling but I got a glimpse of at least one young woman or girl who looked like she was just hanging out like it was just any other day."