A US Forest Service employee in Oregon was arrested this week after a prescribed burn in a national forest spread onto private land. It is an unprecedented move that signals an alarming backlash to prescribed burning, a critical tool in wildfire management.
Rick Snodgrass, a “burn boss” with the forest service, was overseeing a 300-acre burn in Oregon’s Malheur national forest that had been approved by the agency. A spot fire escaped control, according to officials in Grant county and charred roughly 20 acres of private land belonging to Holiday Ranches.
Shortly after, Snodgrass was arrested for “reckless burning” and transported to Grant county jail. It’s not clear yet whether Snodgrass will be officially charged but the county district attorney Jim Carpenter said there was enough probable cause to make the arrest.
It is the latest episode to underscore tensions simmering in rural, conservative eastern Oregon over management of federal lands.
Prescribed burns are set intentionally and under carefully controlled conditions to clear underbrush, pine needle beds and other surface fuels that make forests more prone to wildfires. The strategy is considered essential by scientists and ecologists to prevent more catastrophic fires from erupting across the drought-stricken American west. Such burns are a cultural practice long used by Indigenous nations and have been proven to maintain the health of forests and ecosystems.
But over the last century, fire suppression has led to overgrown forests and agencies are far behind in treating high-risk areas. Now, as the climate grows hotter, prescribed burning is both more essential, and riskier.
Earlier this year the forest service suspended prescribed burning temporarily after two fires escaped control and merged to become the largest blaze in New Mexico’s history.
But when carefully executed, an overwhelming majority of controlled burns go as planned and rarely jump their bounds. According to US Forest officials the conditions were right when Snodgrass undertook the burn this week.
Carpenter warned that Snodgrass’ federal employment will not protect him. “That the USFS was engaging in a prescribed burn may actually raise, rather than lower the standard to which Snodgrass will be held,” the prosecutor said.
Forest Service spokesman Jon McMillan called the arrest “very uncommon” but declined to comment further on the arrest because of the potential of legal proceedings.
The arrest sparked alarm among fire scientists and prescribed fire advocates who have been working to shift public and agency sentiment. “This seems like a result of weird anti-government local politics, especially given where it is,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor with UC cooperative extension in Humboldt county, California, and the director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, in a post on Twitter. “Super upsetting but hopefully not trajectory setting,” she added.
In 2016, tension erupted in adjacent Harney county when rightwing extremists took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest the treatment of two ranchers who were imprisoned for setting fire to federal range land. That conflict exploded when armed rightwing extremists occupied the refuge, which lies 300 miles southeast of Portland, for 41 days.
Details are still scant on why county officials felt this burn warranted an arrest. The sheriff’s office said in a press release Thursday that details cannot be released but that officers and the Forest Service are “working out the events that led to the fire’s escape”.
Even if Snodgrass isn’t charged, his arrest could have a chilling effect on prescribed burning – an outcome that would likely lead to more ferocious fires in the future. There are also concerns that it will serve as a dangerous precedent or disincentive others from becoming burn bosses.
“The implications are enormous,” advocacy organization Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, said on Twitter. “We are going to have to rethink how we conduct prescribed fires on federal lands.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting