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Guilty plea for a teenager accused of sparking Oregon wildfire

HOOD RIVER, Ore. – A teenager who started a huge forest fire in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge last fall by throwing a lit firecracker in the forest, pleaded guilty Friday in a deal that will save him time in detention.

The boy, who was 15 at the time, not identified by the authorities because of fears for his safety after an angry reaction from those who consider the scenic gorge is a favourite playground in Portland. He appeared in Hood River County Court with his parents, who followed the hearing with the help of an interpreter.

The teenager’s family emigrated to the USA in 2000 from Ukraine and lives in Vancouver, Washington.

He pleaded guilty to eight counts of reckless burning of public and private property, two counts of depositing burning material on forest land, and each and every one count of second-degree criminal mischief and recklessly endangering others.

District Judge John Olson condemned the teenager for more than 2 ½ months of community service, five years of probation and the return of the Oregonian/OregonLive reported .

The teen apologized in a statement he read in court and asked for forgiveness.

“I know that I will have to live with his bad decision for the rest of my life, but I have learned from this experience and will work hard to help in the reconstruction of the community in a way that I can,” he said.

“I realize now how important it is to think before acting, because my actions can have serious consequences.”

The beginning of September, the blaze grew to 75 square miles (194 square kilometers) and forced evacuations, caused the prolonged closure of a major interstate highway and sent ash raining down on Portland for the day.

A group of day hikers were trapped by rapidly spreading fire in the woods at night and had to walk 14 miles the next day.

The fire and its aftermath have cost nearly $40 million, and that figure would rise because crews are still working to rebuild and reopen a number of popular hiking trails in the Eagle Creek Wilderness for the summer.

The closure of Interstate 84 and the historic Columbia Gorge Highway, is also affected small businesses that depend on tourism.

Environmental groups said after the hearing that it was time to focus on the reconstruction of the gap. “The fire is out and the court has spoken,” Michael Lang, the conservation director for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said in a statement.

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Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com

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