PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon State Police have identified a teenager they believe started the raging Eagle Creek Fire that has now merged with another fire, burning 20,000 acres and forcing hundreds of residents to evacuate.
A 15-year-old male from Vancouver, Washington, is suspected of igniting the blaze, said police, who did not release the teen’s name.
“It is believed he and others may have been using fireworks, which started the forest fire along the Eagle Creek Trail,” Oregon State Police said in a statement. “The suspect was contacted by law enforcement in the parking lot of the trailhead and cooperated with the investigation.”
No arrests have been made or formal charges filed so far, police said. Police want witnesses or people who heard fireworks or other explosions around the trail to come forward.
The fast-moving fire, which started Saturday, has not been contained, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in during a news conference. The fire is burning east of Portland, at the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.
“Our hearts are breaking; the gorge is Oregon’s crown jewel,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who issued a declaration of emergency for several areas of the county.
The fire was fueled by 30- to 40-mph winds and dry conditions, Brown said.
“We’re working very hard to … make sure our Oregonians and firefighters are safe and to preserve our homes and our critical infrastructure,” the governor said.
The Eagle Creek wildfire merged Tuesday with the nearby Indian Creek Fire, spreading approximately 15 miles and crossing the Columbia River, according to an update by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
More than 600 personnel were working to contain the fire.
Liz FitzGerald, who lives in Portland, described an encounter she had around the time and place authorities say the fire started that might offer clues to its origin.
FitzGerald was at the Eagle Creek Trail on Saturday afternoon, hoping to beat the heat by heading out to Punch Bowl Falls, a waterfall at the end of the trail, she said.
When she was about 1 1/2 miles in, FitzGerald encountered a group of teenagers, including one who she saw “throw a smoke bomb,” she said.
“He lobbed it casually into the canyon,” she said, adding another teen was recording a video.
“Do you realize how dangerous that is?” FitzGerald said she asked the teen, mentioning a nearby wildfire and how dry the area was.
FitzGerald then noticed smoke coming up from where she believed the object had landed, she said.
A girl, who was with the group of teens, said, “Oh (expletive),” FitzGerald said.
Then the teens continued down the trail, she said.
FitzGerald headed in the opposite direction but thought about what she had seen. She soon encountered a couple on the trail and told them about the smoke bomb.
The couple told FitzGerald they had seen a group of kids with firecrackers and that they were heading down to “rat them out,” she recalled.
FitzGerald, who didn’t have a cellphone, took off running to report what she’d seen to authorities, she said.
When she passed the area where she had encountered the teens, “I saw a massive cloud of smoke. I could smell fire. I couldn’t see the flames. It’s steep — but I knew the forest was on fire,” she said.
As she ran down the trail, FitzGerald saw the teens again, “casually walking down the hill,” she said, adding the group now included fewer people.
“Do you realize you just lit a forest fire?” she asked them.
“What are we supposed to do about it now?” one of them replied, FitzGerald said.
“Call the freaking fire department,” she said.
FitzGerald found a forestry law enforcement officer at the parking lot and reported what she had seen. She then saw a minivan pull away with a girl sitting in the front seat.
“The look on her face said, ‘This is so exciting, we’re getting away,'” FitzGerald said.
FitzGerald agreed to get into the officer’s car and they followed the minivan, which the officer pulled over.
As the teenagers were questioned, FitzGerald watched them from a distance.
The initial forestry officer left and a state police trooper arrived to talk to the teens, including one FitzGerald said she recognized as the one who’d thrown the smoke bomb.
From her vantage point, the teens displayed “no sense of panicking. I didn’t see any reaction. They just looked bored,” FitzGerald said.
In the meantime, the fire and a huge cloud of smoke thickened behind them, she said.
FitzGerald said she shared her story because she wants to see good come of it.
“I didn’t run down to alert the authorities in order to ‘make the kids pay.’ I wanted them to know about the fire, and I wanted the kids to be accountable,” she said.
“But I believe that everyone makes mistakes and everyone should be allowed a second chance.”