US Forest Service employee arrested in Oregon for spreading prescribed burning | Forest fires

A US Forest Service employee in Oregon was stopped this week after a prescribed burn in a state forest spread onto private land. This is an unprecedented decision that signals an alarming response to prescribed burning, an essential tool in managing wildfires.

Rick Snodgrass, a forest service “burn chief,” was overseeing a 300-acre burn in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest that had been approved by the agency. According to Grant County officials, a localized fire got out of control and charred about 20 acres of private land owned by Holiday Ranches.

Shortly after, Snodgrass was arrested for “reckless burning” and rushed to the Grant County Jail. It is not yet known whether Snodgrass will be formally charged, but the county District Attorney Jim Carpenter said there were enough probable causes to make the arrest.

He is the latest episode to highlight simmering tensions in rural, conservative eastern Oregon over the management of federal lands.

Prescribed burns are done intentionally and under carefully controlled conditions to remove underbrush, pine beds, and other surface fuels that make forests more prone to wildfires. The strategy is seen as essential by scientists and conservationists to prevent more catastrophic fires from breaking out in the drought-stricken American West. These burns are a cultural practice that has long been used by Indigenous nations and have been proven to maintain the health of forests and ecosystems.

But over the past century, fire suppression has led to overgrown forests, and agencies are lagging far behind in dealing with high-risk areas. Today, as the climate warms, prescribed burning is both more essential and riskier.

Earlier this year, the Forest Service temporarily suspended prescribed burning after two fires out of control and merged to become the largest fire in New Mexico History.

But when executed with care, a the overwhelming majority of controlled burns proceed as planned and rarely jump their limits. According to US forest officials, the conditions were good when Snodgrass undertook the burn this week.

Carpenter warned that federal employment at Snodgrass would not protect him. “The fact that the USFS is 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 rare” but declined to comment further on the arrest due to the potential for legal action.

The arrest sparked alarm among fire scientists and prescribed fire advocates who have worked to change public and agency sentiment. “It seems to be the result of some strange anti-government local politics, especially given where they are,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, fire adviser with UC Co-op Extension in Humboldt County, Calif., and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Board. , in a post on Twitter. “Super upsetting but hopefully no trajectory setting,” she added.

In 2016, tensions erupted in adjacent Harney County when right-wing extremists took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest the treatment of two ranchers jailed for burning federal rangeland. That conflict erupted when armed right-wing extremists occupied the haven, located 300 miles southeast of Portland, for 41 days.

Details are still scarce on why county officials felt the burn warranted an arrest. The sheriff’s office said in a news release Thursday that details cannot be released, but officers and the Forest Service are “working on the events leading up to the fire’s escape.”

Even if Snodgrass is not charged, his arrest could have a deterrent effect on the prescribed burn – an outcome that would likely lead to fiercer fires in the future. There are also fears that it could serve as a dangerous precedent or deter others from becoming burnt-out bosses.

“The implications are huge,” 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

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