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The Gorge is burning, some thoughts on redemption.

The Columbia Gorge is about 40 minutes or so East of where I live.  My entire life, it’s been an escape. Every tourist who has ever visited the state of Oregon is required by law to look at Multnomah Falls, and it long ago slid off my radar. I’m that guy that simply cannot stop himself form yelling at people, usually teenagers, for cutting switchbacks and sending the side of the hill down to the bottom, never to return. I can still look at the (paved) trail there, and see how much has been lost, as each layer of pavement is further away from the downhill slope.

So I haven’t been there in a while, but just East and West of the mighty Multnomah, there are some beautiful dirt trails that climb to the top of the ridge line. They follow streams, and each gives way at several points to some gorgeous waterfalls and beautiful cliffs.  That’s where I like to hike.  I especially enjoy hiking there in the winter time, when the only other humans you’re likely to encounter are the serious lovers of the wilderness, who aren’t afraid of snow and ice.  After my Mom died, the first moment I can recall once again feeling real joy and peace came when I went for a solo hike on Wahkeena Trail. It was quiet, cold and beautiful.

Hiking in the Gorge in the Gorge in the snow. A great way to recover and gain some perspective. And to find your hair has frozen…

This week, though, something awful has happened: The Gorge is on fire. I don’t exactly know what it is about the Gorge and teenagers, but some of the most mysterious behavior I have ever seen has happened there.  Sometimes it’s the ones I mentioned earlier, who climb straight up the hill between switchbacks, sometimes it’s the boys who get to the top, and I’m sure feel they are enhancing their chances with the girls they hiked with by jumping over the fence and walking over to the actual precipice. This time, though, I have no idea why they thought that throwing firecrackers and smoke bombs into a tinder box was a good idea.

As I write this, the Lodge at Multnomah Falls is safe, as well as Vista House and  the town of Cascade Locks. Both of these realities are due to the heroism of forest fire fighters. Sadly, the need for their heroism exists because a 15 year-old kid from Vancouver, WA, thought it would be fun to light a smoke bomb and toss it over the edge of the trail.  Now, 33,000 acres are on fire, and hundreds if firefighters have been called in from all over the West, and five days into the effort, it is 5% contained. Five percent!

If Facebook is to be believed, there are those who are calling for the head of the kid responsible. An article in the Portland Oregonian points out that there is in fact precedent for the kid to be on the hook for damages, both civil and criminal, as well as at least some of his friends who helped out. I have to admit, I’m angry with the little twerp, and I truly think he needs to be held to account for his actions.

I am going to make a suggestion, though, that is a bit different, and that I think would ultimately be constructive for all parties: First, yes, he needs to face legal consequences, and they need to hurt.  Carelessness as an excuse or a mitigating factor only goes so far. I also firmly believe that the punishment should it the crime, not only quantitatively, but qualitatively as well. So here’s my proposal: The kid gets on a payment plan and spends the rest of his life paying back the damage he caused.  I don’t mean the kind of plan where he pays fifty bucks a month, especially since he will most likely live into an era where that fifty bucks will get him little more than a stop into a Starbucks. No, I mean he needs to be on the hook for millions. Now here’s the good part. He can be forgiven the entire financial liability through one (and only one) course of action: After he successfully completes high school, he applies to, is accepted to, and successfully completes the USDA’s Smokejumper school.  He then continues to work for no less than fifteen seasons as a Smokejumper. He’ll be free to move around the various Smokejumper bases, and do all the things that Smokejumpers get to do.  But he does it for fifteen years. Anything short of the full fifteen, and he’s back to a crushing monthly payment.

For those who perhaps haven’t read Norman Maclean’s Young Men and Fire, Smokejumpers have a very interesting job.  They get into an airplane, fly over a forest fire, and then jump out, carrying all the gear they’ll need to fight a fire in a very remote area, generally inaccessible by other means.  This way, the kid will get to learn extremely well what the problem was with his moment of carelessness.  Others have suggested that he be sentenced to significant community service, probably including doing a lot of replanting, but somehow I feel that actually having to keep himself in top condition, and spend some time really getting to know the beast he unleashed would be a more fitting way to repay a debt to the planet. Busywork and boredom, even if they are physically exhausting are one thing, but getting sent to the front is something else entirely.

Oh, yeah, and the kid who took the video?  He’s there too, as are the rest of the kids who got pulled over in the van leaving the scene. Think about it, the graduation photo would be awesome!


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