Arrest of Forest Service employee raises tension in rural Oregon

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When US Forest Service personnel started a prescribed burn in a national forest in rural Oregon on Wednesday, Tonna and Mandy Holliday were scared. The sisters, who run Windy Point Cattle Co., lived nearby and knew the conditions were dry.

By the end of the day, the prescribed burn escaped the Malheur National Forest, jumping over County Road 63 and burning up a swath of their timberland and grazing land. They called 911 and soon the US Forest Service fire boss was headed to jail.

The arrest of a Forest Service employee is extremely rare, according to former Forest Service officials and other experts, and has become a fresh source of tension in a part of the country with a history of hostility toward the federal government.

The Grant County, Ore., sheriff’s office on Wednesday arrested Rick Snodgrass, a 39-year-old Forest Service employee, for “reckless burning” after a prescribed fire in the Malheur National Forest burned the Hollidays’ ranch. Temperatures topped 70 degrees that afternoon, and Sheriff Todd McKinley told Wildfire Today that “everyone knew it was a bad burn, shouldn’t happen.”

“It was not the right time to burn, and there may even have been means taken to get the burn done that was out of scope,” McKinley said.

Snodgrass, who was taken to the Grant County Jail and later released on parole, “conducted an approved, prescribed fire operation,” a Forest Service spokesman said in a statement, declining to comment further, citing the pending legal case. Snodgrass could not immediately be reached for comment.

On Friday, Glenn Casamassa, the Forest Service’s regional ranger for the Pacific Northwest, wrote to employees that he could not elaborate on the incident, but that “I want each of you to know that [at] every time he [Snodgrass]and the entire team that engaged Starr prescribed fire had and continues to have our full support.”

“I spoke with the Burn Boss last night and expressed my support for him and the actions he took to direct the prescribed burn,” Casamassa added in the email, which was obtained by The Washington Post. “Furthermore, I let him know that it is my expectation that the Forest Service will continue to support him in all legal proceedings.”

Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter said in a statement that the county’s dispatch center began receiving 911 calls around 4:50 p.m. Wednesday reporting an out-of-control fire along Izee Highway in Bear Valley.

“This case will be evaluated once the investigation is complete and, if appropriate, Snodgrass will be formally charged,” Carpenter said. “To be clear, the employer and/or position of Snodgrass will not protect him if it is determined that he acted recklessly. That the USFS was involved in a prescribed burn may actually raise, rather than lower, the standard that Snodgrass will be held to.”

“A lot of people will try to hype this up into something that it’s not,” Carpenter added. “The question is whether a neighbor, given the prevailing conditions, was reckless when he started fires next to another neighbor.”

Some former Forest Service officials were troubled by Wednesday’s arrest, especially in this part of Oregon. The Starr 6 prescribed burn took place outside the town of Seneca. In 2016, a group of armed right-wing extremists led by Ammon Bundy occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, about 75 miles to the south, as part of a protest against the federal government’s control of public lands in the West.

Steve Ellis, the president of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, said he had never heard of a Forest Service employee being arrested for starting a prescribed fire.

“To go out and start arresting people is not appropriate. And that sends a terrible signal to our wild firefighters out there now,” he said. “There needs to be more fuel management on the landscape to protect communities from these climate-driven wildfires, and that includes Grant County, Oregon. Responding like this is not going to help.”

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 an anti-federal government pocket for as long as I can remember.”

“To be successful as a forest manager in that area, you really have to ‘work’ the community, including attending high school football and basketball games, Rotary Club, etc.,” Ellis said.

Doug Gochnour, who served as forest supervisor for the Malheur National Forest from 2008 to 2011, said he had no knowledge of this particular burn, but he was “amazed that anyone was arrested.”

“It was by far the most challenging place of my career, and I worked in two forests in Oregon, three in Idaho, one in Montana and in short trips in Colorado and Alaska,” said Gochnour, who has also served on the city council. nearby John Day, Ore., after he retired. “People were constantly snooping on all the decisions we made.”

Gochnour said he faced resentment over the decline of the timber industry that had once sustained the community and over the wages Forest Service employees received. Good work was being ignored, he said, but “if anything remotely negative happens … it spreads the word like wildfire.”

“It’s not the whole community,” he added. “It’s kind of a culture from some of the old ones that they’ve passed on to their children and so forth, an animosity toward the federal government.”

The deliberate fires regularly set by the Forest Service — intended to clear vegetation that could lead to more destructive flames — have at times burned out of control. Two fires ignited this year in New Mexico grew into the largest wildfire in state history while destroying hundreds of homes. Warmer and drier conditions out West have made these prescribed fires even more difficult — narrowing the window when they can be done safely.

Firefighters and land managers across the West are pushing for more prescribed burns as a way to burn the type of fuels that can fuel wildfires and threaten communities. The Forest Service conducts an average of about 4,500 prescribed burns per year, and the vast majority stay within their intended limits.

National Park Service officials are crediting prescribed fires among a famous grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park for helping save the trees during a wildfire this summer.

The Forest Service on Thursday wrote on Twitter that the Starr 6 prescribed fire caused a “spot fire” on private land. This occurs when embers fly into the distance and start new fires, sometimes miles away.

“It was caught within an hour on approximately 18 acres,” the Forest Service said.

The Holliday sisters said in an interview that the nearby Silvies River was running dry, and an earlier attempted burn the week before had shown spotting — with embers flying toward private property.

They estimated that 40 hectares of their land burned. None of the structures on their ranch or their hundreds of cattle were harmed.

“For us, to have some of your land burned up was devastating,” Tonna Holliday said.

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