The extremely rare arrest of a Forest Service employee has become a new source of tension in a country that has long been hostile to the federal government, according to former Forest Service officials and other experts.
The Grant County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon on Wednesday arrested 39-year-old Forest Service employee Rick Snodgrass on charges of “reckless burning” after a prescribed fire in the Malheur National Forest destroyed the Hollidays ranch. With temperatures in the 70s that afternoon, Sheriff Todd McKinley told Wildfire Today, “everyone knew it was severe burns and shouldn’t have happened.”
“It’s not the right time to burn, and maybe even an out-of-scope way of burning,” McKinley said.
A Forest Service spokesman said in a statement that Snodgrass was taken to the Grant County Jail, where he was conditionally released, and that he was “conducting an approved prescribed firefighting operation,” but declined to comment further, citing reasons is an unresolved legal issue. Snodgrass could not be immediately reached for comment.
Glenn Casamassa, the Forest Service’s regional forester for the Pacific Northwest, wrote to staff Friday that he could not elaborate on the incident, but “I want each of you to know [at] always [Snodgrass], and the entire team involved in Starr’s mandated firepower, has and will continue to have our full support. “
“I spoke with Burns boss last night and expressed my support for him and the actions he is taking in leading the prescribed burns,” Casamasa added in an email obtained by The Washington Post. I let him know that I hope the Forest Service will continue to support him in any legal action.”
Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter said in a statement that the county dispatch center began receiving 911 calls around 4:50 p.m. Wednesday to report an uncontrolled burn along the Izee Freeway in Bell Valley. .
“Once the investigation is complete, the case will be assessed and, if appropriate, Snodgrass will be formally charged,” Carpenter said. “To be clear, Snodgrass’s employer and/or position will not protect him if it is determined that he acted recklessly. The USFS conducting a prescribed incineration may actually raise, rather than lower, Snodgrass’s standards.”
“A lot of people will try to hype it up as something it’s not,” Carpenter added. “The question is, given the circumstances at the time, was one neighbour reckless in setting a fire adjacent to another neighbour.”
Some former Forest Service officials were shocked by Wednesday’s arrests, especially in this part of Oregon. The burns prescribed by Starr 6 occurred outside the town of Seneca. In 2016, a group of armed right-wing extremists led by Amon Bundy seized the headquarters of the Malher National Wildlife Refuge, about 75 miles to the south, as part of a protest against federal control of public lands in the west.
Steve Ellis, president of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, said he had never heard of a Forest Service employee being arrested for opening fire.
“It’s not appropriate to go out and catch people. It’s sending a dire signal to our wildland fire crews out there right now,” he said. “More fuel treatment of the landscape is needed to protect communities from these climate-driven wildfires, including Grant County, Oregon. Reacting like this is not helpful.”
Ellis, who has worked in small towns in the Pacific Northwest during his career with the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, said this part of Oregon “has been in the pocket of the anti-federal government for as long as I can remember.”
“To be a successful forest supervisor in the area, you really have to ‘work’ the community, including playing high school football and basketball, Rotary, etc.,” Ellis said.
Doug Gochnour, who worked as a forest monitor in the Malheur National Forest from 2008 to 2011, said he knew nothing about this particular burn, but he was “appalled that someone was arrested.”
“It’s been by far the most challenging place in my career, I’ve worked in two forests in Oregon, three in Idaho, one in Montana, and in Colorado and Alaska worked briefly,” said Gochnour, who also serves on the New York City Council. He retired near John Day, Oregon. “People have been bashing all the decisions we’ve made.”
Gochnour said he was dissatisfied with the decline of the lumber industry that once supported the community and the salaries of Forest Service employees. Good jobs are being ignored, he said, but “if something negative happens…the rumours can spread like wildfire.”
“It’s not the whole community,” he added. “It’s a culture from some of the older folks that they’ve passed on to their kids and so on and that is hostility to the federal government.”
Periodically, the Forest Service deliberately set fires — designed to clear vegetation that could lead to more destructive fires — that sometimes get out of control. Two wildfires that ignited this year in New Mexico grew into the largest wildfires in the state’s history, destroying hundreds of homes at the same time. Hotter and drier conditions in the west make these prescribed fires trickier — narrowing the window when they can be done safely.
Firefighters and land managers in the West are pushing for more prescribed burns to burn off the type of fuel that can exacerbate wildfires and threaten communities. The Forest Service averages about 4,500 prescribed burns per year, the vast majority within its intended range.
National Park Service officials believe a fire broke out in Yosemite National Park’s famed giant redwood forest during a wildfire this summer that helped save trees.
The Forest Service wrote Thursday on twitter Starr 6 regulated fires have caused “live fires” on private land. This happens when embers fly far away and start new fires, sometimes miles away.
“It was captured on approximately 18 acres within an hour,” the Forest Service said.
The nearby Silvies River was drying up, the Holliday sisters said in an interview, and a burning attempt a week ago showed a discovery act – embers flying to private property.
They estimated that 40 acres of land were burned. No buildings or hundreds of cattle on their ranch were harmed.
“It was devastating for us to have any ground burnt,” Tonna Holliday said.