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Arrest of forest service worker sparks tension in rural Oregon


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

At the end of the day, the prescribed burn escaped Malheur National Forest, jumped over County Road 63, and burned a swath of their woodlots and pastures. They called 911 and soon the US Forest Service burn official was on his way to jail.

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

The Grant County, Oregon, Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday arrested Rick Snodgrass, a 39-year-old Forest Service employee, for “reckless arson” after a directed fire in the Malheur National Forest burned down the ranch of the Holidays. Temperatures topped 70 degrees that afternoon and Sheriff Todd McKinley told Wildfire Today “everyone knew it was a bad burn, it shouldn’t be happening.”

“It was not the right time to burn, and it may even be that means were taken to burn that burn that were out of reach,” McKinley said.

Snodgrass, who was taken to Grant County Jail and then paroled, “was conducting an approved prescribed burn operation,” a Forest Service spokesperson said in a statement, while declining to comment further, citing the ongoing court case. Snodgrass could not immediately be reached for comment.

On Friday, Glenn Casamassa, the Forest Service’s regional forester for the Pacific Northwest, wrote to employees that he could not go into specifics about the incident but that “I want each of you to know that [at] all the time he [Snodgrass]and the entire team that committed to Starr’s directed fire had, and continues to have, our full support.

“I spoke with the Burn Boss last night and expressed my support to him and the steps he has taken to direct the prescribed burn,” Casamassa added in the email, which was obtained by The Washington Post. . “Furthermore, I let him know that I expect the Forest Service to continue to support him through 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, reporting an out-of-control fire along the Izee Highway in Bear Valley.

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

“A lot of people will try to turn this into something it’s not,” Carpenter added. “The question is whether a neighbour, given the prevailing conditions, was reckless in starting fires next to another neighbour.”

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 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 south, as part of a protest against the federal government’s 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 doing a prescribed burn.

“Going out and starting to arrest people is not appropriate. And that sends a terrible signal to our wildfire people there now,” he said. “There needs to be more fuel treatment across the landscape to protect communities from these climate-driven wildfires, and that includes Grant County, Oregon. Reacting like that won’t help.

Ellis, who worked in small towns in the Pacific Northwest during his Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management career, said that part of Oregon was “an anti-government pocket as far that I remember”.

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

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

“It was by far the hardest place of my career and I worked in two forests in Oregon, three in Idaho, one in Montana and for short periods in Colorado and Alaska. “said Gochnour, who also served on the city council of nearby John Day, Oregon, after retiring. “People were constantly shooting at every decision we made.”

Gochnour said he faced resentment over the decline of the lumber industry that once supported the community and about the salaries Forest Service employees received. Good work was ignored, he said, but “if anything remotely negative happens…that rumor spreads like wildfire.”

“It’s not the whole community,” he added. “It’s kind of a culture of some elders that they passed on to their children and so on, an animosity against the federal government.”

Intentional fires regularly started by the Forest Service — intended to clear vegetation that can lead to more destructive fires — have sometimes spiral out of control. Two fires ignited this year in New Mexico have become the largest wildfire in state history while destroying hundreds of homes. Hotter, drier conditions in the West have made these directed 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 to burn the kind of fuels that can supercharge wildfires and threaten communities. The Forest Service averages about 4,500 prescribed burns per year, and the vast majority stay within the prescribed limits.

National Park Service officials credit prescribed fires at a famous grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park with helping save trees during a wildfire this summer.

The Forest Service wrote Thursday on Twitter that the Starr 6 prescribed burn caused a “spot fire” on private property. It happens when embers fly in the distance and start new fires, sometimes miles away.

“He was captured in an hour on about 18 acres,” the Forest Service said.

The Holliday sisters said in an interview that the nearby Silvies River was drying up and a previous burning attempt the previous week had shown tracking behavior – with embers flying towards private property.

They estimated that 40 acres of their land had burned. None of the structures on their ranch, or their hundreds of head of cattle, were harmed.

“For us, it was devastating to see one of your pitches burn,” said Tonna Holliday.


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