Woman gets prison for starting wildfire

Warm Springs resident also ordered to pay $7.9 million

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin / @DylanJDarling

Published Sep 4, 2014 at 12:01AM

A Warm Springs woman who started a wildfire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in 2013 that grew to more than 51,000 acres was sentenced to 1½ years in prison and ordered to pay $7.9 million in restitution.

Sadie Renee Johnson, 23, read a statement Wednesday at her sentencing in Portland, accepting responsibility for the fire and saying she hopes to thrive in substance-abuse recovery, said Gerri Badden, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland.

U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez sentenced Johnson to 18 months in federal prison, six months of in-patient drug and alcohol treatment, three years of supervised release and 200 hours of community service on the reservation, Badden said. Court records show Johnson agreed to pay the restitution money to the Bureau of Indian Affairs as part of a plea agreement reached in May.

“... She’ll be on the hook for that money for a long, long time,” Pamala Holsinger, assistant U.S. Attorney in Portland and prosecutor in the case, said Tuesday.

Johnson was riding in a car with her two juvenile brothers around 9:15 a.m. July 20, 2013, when she used the car’s cigarette lighter to ignite a firework. She then tossed it from the car as it moved along Route 3 on the reservation, according to court records. The firework sparked a fire in the brush along the highway that eventually grew into the 51,480-acre Sunnyside Turnoff Fire, which took crews nine days to contain. The fire triggered the evacuation of 40 homes and Kah-Nee-Ta Resort & Spa.

A couple days after starting the fire, Johnson posted, “like my fire?” on her Facebook page. The Bureau of Indian Affairs spent $7.9 million fighting the blaze, leading to the restitution bill for Johnson.

A federal law required the judge to order restitution in the case, Holsinger said. Prison officials and her supervisor while on release will work with Johnson to set up a payment plan. Paying the restitution may mean a lifetime of wage garnishments if Johnson has a job once she’s out of prison.

Over the past decade, some cases around the country resulted in even higher restitution figures. The federal government announced in July 2008 that it had reached a settlement with Union Pacific Railroad, in which the railroad agreed to play $102 million for the 52,000-acre Storrie Fire in 2000 on national forestland in Northern California. The civil case settlement covered the $22 million cost of fighting the fire, which was started by a midday track repair by railroad workers, and $80 million in resource damage.

In Colorado, the woman responsible for starting the 137,000-acre Hayman Fire in 2002, which destroyed 133 homes, owes more than $44 million to more than a 1,000 victims in a state case and another $14 million in a federal case, according to the Denver Post. In July 2012, the paper reported that Terry Barton found a job as a personal trainer and was making monthly payments of $75.

Johnson is in federal custody and currently being held without bail at the Columbia County Jail in St. Helens.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com