The New York Times
SEATTLE>> In a high-altitude landscape parched by drought, U.S. Forest Service crews took advantage of some stable weather in eastern Oregon this month and prepared to burn off some thick underbrush and shrubbery at the edge of the Blue Mountains, part of an expanding strategy to remove forest fuel that can turn fires into conflagrations.
The target was a 300acre tract of woodlands in the Malheur National Forest, adjacent to a private cattle ranch. But the controlled fire that the crew set on the afternoon of Oct. 19 jumped a containment line and charred through a portion of the nearby ranch. Two sisters from the family owned Windy Point Cattle Co. made their way through the smoke-filled landscape for a furious confrontation with the Forest Service’s “burn boss,” Ricky Snodgrass, and dialed 911.
What happened next, federal officials say, was highly unusual in the modern history of the Forest Service and its programs for managing federal lands across the country. The Grant County sheriff arrived, placed Snodgrass in handcuffs and sent him to jail.
The Forest Service chief, Randy Moore, has protested the arrest, declaring in a message to employees that he will not “stand idly by without fully defending the burn boss and all employees carrying out their official duties as federal employees.”
For Tonna Holliday, one of the sisters, who lost about 20 acres of timber and grassland to the errant blaze, the crackdown was an appropriate response to a conflict between private landowners and federal land managers in eastern Oregon that had, in one measure or another, been simmering for years.
“It needed to happen,” she said. “Somebody needed to be accountable.”
The Forest Service ignites thousands of prescribed fires on more than 1 million acres each year, to make forests more resilient and limit the potency of wildland blazes.
With climate change driving an increase in the size, frequency and ferocity of wildfires, the Forest Service adopted a plan this year to increase those prescribed burns and more aggressively thin forest stands with strategic logging programs.
The need was apparent in places such as eastern Oregon. A fire in 2015 that began in the Malheur National Forest swept out of control when the winds whipped up and destroyed 43 homes, alongwith barns, haystacks, rangeland and livestock.
But even before this month’s confrontation in Oregon, the Forest Service’s burn effort had gotten off to a problematic start.
A prescribed burning operation in April accidentally spawned the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history, consuming hundreds of homes and scorching hundreds of thousands of acres of land. The Forest Service ordered a three-month suspension on all prescribed fires; in a subsequent review, agency officials found a culture that pressured employees to reach acreage targets for prescribed burns and local staff members who needed more help with risk analysis.
The review recommended changes, including amore thorough review of the complexity and conditions of any prescribed fires, but the Forest Service cleared the way for prescribed burns to proceed.
It was toward the tail end of Oregon’s fire season, in mid-October, when officials prepared the operation in Malheur National Forest. It was a small effort on the northern side of Bear Valley, a tiny portion of the many thousands of acres in the area that the agency has identified for possible prescribed burns.
The Forest Service’s operations in this part of Oregon have long been the subject of contention in Grant County, where the U.S. government manages 60% of the land.
Locals have stewed over federal land management policies, including logging restrictions that have contributed to declines in timber production and the shuttering of the region’s sawmills.
In the 1990s, the county approved a measure that tried, unsuccessfully, to prohibit the federal government from owning or managing land in the county. In the 2000s, voters approved a petition that asked Congress to surrender federal claims to land in the area.
The region’s most visible confrontation occurred one county over in 2016, with an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a tense standoff led by extremists who opposed federal land management.
That turbulent history was very much in the background when the Forest Service prepared the small, initial burn in Bear Valley on Oct. 13— six days before the burn that would lead to problems. The agency said it had carefully monitored conditions across the forest and determined that the temperature, humidity and moisture of the fuels were right to begin.
But Holliday said this first burn brought early troubles, consuming some fences on federal land that the Hollidays were responsible for maintaining. She said the fire had shown signs of spotting, risking a jump over the highway.
“We had words with them that day,” Holliday said.
A spokesperson for the Forest Service declined to discuss details but said it was common for prescribed burns to impact fencing and crews often returned to repair them.
Holliday said she and other family members, concerned about drought conditions, warm temperatures and unpredictable afternoon winds, were hoping the crews would not return, but the Forest Service announced the next week that it was going to burn more acreage, affirming that crews had reviewed the conditions and found them acceptable.
“Forest thinning and the safe and effective use of prescribed fire, often in conjunction, are essential tools for reducing wildfire risks and creating resilient, fireadapted landscapes,” the agency wrote in announcing its planned burn.
Holliday said the Oct. 19 operation began without issue. But in the afternoon, she said, the fire jumped a roadway and moved onto the family’s private land. There, it burned approximately 20 acres, according to the sheriff’s office, in an area where the forest starts fading into grasslands.
Sheriff Todd McKinley arrived, questioned the family, and askedHolliday’s brother whether he wanted to press charges, according to her account, which could not be confirmed with authorities beyond their official statements confirming the arrest.
When her brother answered in the affirmative, Holliday said, the sheriff arrested Snodgrass and took him to jail on suspicion of reckless burning. He was later granted conditional release from custody, with the authorities saying they would investigate the case.
Snodgrass declined to comment, but he told The Blue Mountain Eagle that the arrest came as crews were still confronting the fire. He said the sheriff put the crews and land at risk by taking him away at that moment. The blaze eventually was quelled.
The sheriff declined an interview but acknowledged the tensions in the region that had resurfaced.
“To prevent a boil-over of emotion, or in the effort to limit that, I am refraining from making comments on the issue at this time,” the sheriff said.
The district attorney, Jim Carpenter, said in a statement that an investigation was ongoing and that it could take weeks or months to reach a decision about pursuing charges. He said he respected the sheriff’s discretion and decision to make an arrest.
“To be clear, the employer and/or position of Snodgrass will not protect him if it is determined that he acted recklessly,” Carpenter said. “That the USFS was engaging in a prescribed burn may actually raise, rather than lower the standard to which Snodgrass will be held.”
The arrest has rattled federal workers who have long tried to navigate the frustrations of local communities while carrying out federal land management policy.