The arrest of a Forest Service employee is exceedingly rare, according to former Forest Service officials and other experts, and it has become a fresh source of tension in a part of the country with a history of animosity toward the federal government.
The sheriff’s office in Grant County, Ore., 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 onto the Hollidays’ ranch. Temperatures exceeded 70 degrees that afternoon and Sheriff Todd McKinley told Wildfire Today that “everybody knew it was a bad burn, should not be happening.”
“It was not the right time to burn, and there may have even been means taken to get that burn done that were outside the scope,” McKinley said.
Snodgrass, who was taken to Grant County Jail and later conditionally released, was “conducting an approved prescribed fire operation,” a Forest Service spokesman said in a statement, while declining to comment further, citing the pending legal matter. Snodgrass could not be immediately reached for comment.
On Friday, Glenn Casamassa, the Forest Service’s regional forester for the Pacific Northwest, wrote to employees that he couldn’t go into specifics about the incident but that “I want each of you to know that [at] all times he [Snodgrass], and the entire team that engaged on the 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 in leading the prescribed burn,” Casamassa added in the email, which was obtained by The Washington Post. “In addition, I let him know it’s my expectation that the Forest Service will continue to support him throughout any legal actions.”
Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter said in a statement that the county dispatch center began receiving 911 calls at about 4:50 p.m. on Wednesday reporting an out of control burn along the Izee Highway in Bear Valley.
“This case will be evaluated once the investigation is complete, and if appropriate, Snodgrass will formally be 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 engaging in a prescribed burn may actually raise, rather than lower the standard to which Snodgrass will be held.”
“Many will attempt to hype this into something that it is not,” Carpenter added. “The question is whether one neighbor, given the prevailing conditions, was reckless when starting fires adjacent to another neighbor.”
Some former Forest Service officials were alarmed by Wednesday’s arrest, particularly in this part of Oregon. The Starr 6 prescribed burn took place outside of 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 land in the West.
Steve Ellis, the chair of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, said he had never heard of a Forest Service employee being arrested for doing prescribed fire.
“To go out and start arresting people is not appropriate. And it sends a terrible signal to our wildland fire people out there now,” he said. “There needs to be more fuels treatment on the landscape in order to protect communities from these climate driven wildfires, and that includes Grant County, Oregon. To react 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 as long as I can remember.”
“To be a successful as a Forest Supervisor 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 in the Malheur National Forest from 2008 to 2011, said he had no knowledge about this particular burn but he was “stunned that somebody got arrested.”
“It was by far the most challenging location through my career and I worked in two forests in Oregon, three in Idaho, one in Montana, and for short spurts in Colorado and Alaska,” said Gochnour, who also served on the city council of nearby John Day, Ore., after he retired. “People were constantly sniping at all the decisions we made.”
Gochnour said he faced resentment about the decline of the timber industry that had once sustained the community and about the salaries that Forest Service employees received. Good work was ignored, he said, but “if something remotely negative happens … that rumor spreads like wildfire.”
“It’s not the whole community,” he added. “It’s sort of a culture from some of the old-timers that they’ve spread to their children and so forth, an animosity against the federal government.”
The intentional fires regularly set by the Forest Service — intended to clear vegetation that can lead to more destructive blazes — have on occasion burned out of control. Two fires lit this year in New Mexico grew into the largest wildfire in state history while destroying hundreds of homes. Hotter and dryer conditions out West have made these prescribed fires even trickier — 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 off the type of fuels that can supercharge forest fires and threaten communities. The Forest Service conducts on average about 4,500 prescribed burns per year and the vast majority stay within their intended boundaries.
National Park Service officials credit prescribed fires among a famous grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park for helping to 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 at approximately 18 acres,” the Forest Service said.
The Holliday sisters said in an interview that the nearby Silvies River was running dry and a prior attempt at a burn the week before had shown spotting behavior — with embers flying toward private property.
They estimated that 40 acres of their land burned. None of the structures on their ranch, or their hundreds of cattle, were harmed.
“To us it was devastating to have any of your ground burn up,” Tonna Holliday said.