Eagle Creek Fire Witness: Young Hikers Giggled As Firecracker Descended Into Gorge Canyon

Sep 5, 2017

A Portland woman says the young hikers suspected of starting a fire now consuming the Columbia River Gorge giggled as one threw a firecracker into Eagle Creek Canyon.

One suspect has been identified as a 15-year-old male from Vancouver, Washington. Oregon State Police spokesman Bill Fugate said if charged, the suspect could face the same state charges as an adult. Fugate said OSP will release the suspect's name if and when charges are filed. It is believed he and others may have been using fireworks which started the forest fire along the Eagle Creek Trail. 

Law enforcement then contacted and interviewed the suspect in the parking lot of the trailhead.

Liz FitzGerald, who lives in Portland, was seeking relief from the heat Saturday afternoon by hiking to Punch Bowl Falls when she came upon a group of young people, including teenagers, stopped on the trail above a high drop off.  

“I saw this kid throw a smoke bomb — just lobbed it and dropped it down into the woods. … I saw him throw something that was on fire. Then we all looked over the edge and saw smoke,” she said. “I said, ‘Do you realize how dangerous this is?’”   

FitzGerald kept walking but then ran into an older couple. She told them what she’d seen, and they told her they’d also seen a group of teenagers lighting fireworks. That scared her and she turned around to head back to her car.

On her way, she passed the spot where she’d seen the fireworks thrown. “It was billowing smoke. I could distinctly smell fire,” she said. “It smelled like the fire in my fireplace. It was very clear that this was not the smell of a firecracker.”  

She ran back to the parking lot, telling people she passed on the trail to turn around. She found a U.S. Forest Service officer and told him her story. She said she pointed out the group she’d seen throwing the firecracker.

FitzGerald says she blames the entire group she encountered.  

“Even though that kid threw the firecracker, all of those kids he was with are complicit. All of them watched, all of them did nothing. They all were a part of it. One filmed it,” she said. “When I came upon them, and the guy threw the firecracker, I’m pretty sure I heard a couple of them giggle. The guy was filming it like it was another thing to film, no big deal. The whole complacency of that group, I find it so disturbing.”  

Oregon State Police spokesman Bill Fugate would not comment on whether other members of the group could face charges in addition to the main suspect. 

The Eagle Creek Fire is now burning more than 10,000 acres and has forced several towns along the Gorge to evacuate. More than 150 hikers were forced to shelter in place near Tunnel Falls Saturday night due to the wildfire. The hikers were successfully rescued Sunday morning. The fire also jumped the Columbia River early Tuesday morning, sparking the 25-acre Archer Mountain Fire.       

The Oregon State Police is seeking witnesses or those with information about the cause of the fire to come forward. Anyone who heard fireworks or other explosions in the area of the Eagle Creek Trail/Punch Bowl Falls on Saturday between 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. is urged to contact OSP at 503-375-3555.

Amanda Peacher contributed to this report. 

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting