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The reason I am based out of Oregon for the first half of my sabbatical is to work on a new book project on recent Northwest history. But the other reason is that I want to be in Oregon, my home state. I manage to spend a few weeks here a year, but haven’t spent more than a month here since 1996. One of the best parts about Oregon is the ability to hike in gorgeous forests with waterfalls and mountain views. So I was really excited. But that’s not happening because of the horrible fire season here, a combination of a very wet spring, a very hot and dry summer, and a general increase in forest fires that are burning since 2000 at around double the rate in the decades before 2000. This has generally been a major bummer, plus the smoke choking the valleys making breathing unpleasant, but the burning of the Columbia Gorge by a bunch of idiot teenagers throwing fireworks into dry brush is infuriating and has outraged the entire Portland area. There’s a lesson here, but it’s not quite this lesson:

The Eagle Creek fire was apparently started by a fifteen-year-old boy from Vancouver, Washington, who on Saturday afternoon was seen lobbing a smoke bomb from a hiking trail into the steep basalt ravine cut by Eagle Creek. Liz FitzGerald, a Portland woman who witnessed the incident, told me that the boy was part of a group of about a dozen teen-agers, and that his friends looked on, some giggling, as the firework dropped into the two-hundred-foot-deep canyon. “Don’t you know how dangerous that is?” FitzGerald told them. “This whole place is so dry!” They shrugged.

FitzGerald continued up the narrow trail, but after a few minutes realized that she should heed her own warning; when she turned back, she saw that the thin plume from the smoke bomb had already thickened into something more threatening. She ran the mile and a half to the trailhead, and when she passed the group of teen-agers, she told them that they had started a forest fire. “What are we supposed to do about it now?” one said. “Call the freaking fire department!” FitzGerald replied.

In the trailhead parking lot, FitzGerald told a Forest Service law-enforcement officer what she’d seen, and, as they talked, she noticed that the teen-agers had reached their own vehicle and were already pulling out onto the highway. The officer, with FitzGerald in tow, gave chase and stopped the alleged perpetrator; charges have not yet been filed, but an investigation is ongoing. Social media has since lit up with fury at the bomb-thrower, but FitzGerald points out that the entire group of teen-agers—and a number of passing adults—watched his actions and did nothing. “Everyone wants to just nail this kid, but so many people saw this crazy behavior,” she said. “They were all complicit.” Five days later, the smoke has settled in—a stinking, gritty reminder that the rest of us are complicit, too.

This seems more like shaming the public for fairly normal human behavior than a real solution. First, teenagers are going to be idiots sometimes. I don’t know about the parenting–maybe it is bad. But even good teenagers will do stupid things. Second, most people don’t like confrontation. They might shake their head at what the kids are doing, but they aren’t going to directly confront them. Maybe they should, but this gets right at the heart of human nature.

There is however a solution. The possession of fireworks in private hands should be illegal. There simply is no good reason to have them. Of course, there are fireworks bans all over the place. But these are laws that often aren’t enforced. And they should be enforced. Between people starting forest fires and people blowing their hands off, there is no good reason to allow private ownership of fireworks. When someone sees people blowing up fireworks, people should call the police, report them, and a severe fine should be issued.

In any case, it’s much better to suggest policy changes than it is to bemoan human behavior. The forests are less likely to burn that way.

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