This week, an Oregon police officer arrested a US Forest Service employee after a prescribed burn in a national forest overran onto private property. It’s a dramatic turn of events that should send alarm bells ringing because prescribed fires are an essential part of managing wildfires.
A forest service “burn boss” named Rick Snodgrass was in charge of a forest fire that burned 300 acres in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest. Officials in Grant county say that 20 acres of privately owned land were destroyed by a spot fire that got out of hand.
Snodgrass was taken to the Grant county jail not long after for “reckless burning.” County district attorney Jim Carpenter said there was enough probable cause to conduct the arrest, but it is unclear if official charges would be filed against Snodgrass at this time.
It’s the latest evidence of conservatives and rural residents in eastern Oregon’s simmering concerns over the government’s management of federal lands.
Forests are less likely to be destroyed by wildfires if underbrush, pine needle beds, and other surface fuels are removed by the use of well planned and managed prescribed burns. Scientists and ecologists agree that this approach is crucial if we are to prevent further devastation in the American west from the ongoing drought. These controlled burns have been utilized for centuries as part of the cultural traditions of Indigenous peoples, and they have been shown to be effective in preserving forest and ecosystem health.
The prevention of fires over the past century has allowed woods to get overgrown, and authorities have fallen far behind in treating high-risk regions. A hotter climate makes prescribed burning more necessary but also more dangerous.
Prescribed burning was temporarily halted earlier this year after two fires grew out of control and merged to create the largest conflagration in New Mexico’s recorded history.
Controlled burns are dangerous, yet when done properly, they almost never fail to burn within the boundaries set. Officials from the US Forest Service say that this week was ideal for the burn that Snodgrass conducted.
Carpenter cautioned that Snodgrass’s federal job does not afford him any special privileges. The prosecutor argued that the fact that the USFS was conducting a prescribed burn would lead to a higher rather than lower level of proof against Snodgrass.
Because of the possible legal ramifications, Forest Service spokesman Jon McMillan, although calling the arrest “extremely uncommon,” declined to elaborate further.
Prescribed fire activists and fire scientists who have been working to change public and agency attitudes were alarmed by the arrest. According to Lenya Quinn-Davidson, director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council and fire advisor with UC cooperative extension in Humboldt county, California, “this seems like a result of bizarre anti-government local politics, especially given where it is.” This is very disappointing, but I’m hoping it won’t change the course of things,” she continued.
As a result of right-wing extremists seizing control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 to protest the sentencing of two ranchers who had set fire to federal range land, tensions flared in the neighboring county of Harney. This war broke out after right-wing radicals occupied a refuge 300 miles southeast of Portland for 41 days with weapons.
The reasons why county officials decided to make an arrest in connection with this blaze are still unclear. In a news release issued on Thursday, the sheriff’s office noted that while specifics could not be discussed, officers and the Forest Service are “working out the events that led to the fire’s escape.”
Even if charges are dropped against Snodgrass, his arrest could still have a chilling impact on prescribed burning, which could lead to more severe fires in the future. Fears have been raised that it will set a bad example or discourage potential burn bosses.
Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a lobbying group, tweeted, “The consequences are tremendous.” When it comes to federal lands, “we will have to reevaluate our approach to prescribed fires.”