Forest Service Chief Says Arrest of 'Burn Boss' Was 'Highly Inappropriate'

Oregon sheriff arrested federal employee after controlled burn went wrong
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 25, 2022 6:09 PM CDT
Sheriff Arrests Forest Service 'Burn Boss'
This Dec. 7, 2016 photo shows the entrance to the Malheur National Forest near John Day, Ore.   (AP Photo/Andrew Selsky, File)

The head of the US Forest Service has denounced the arrest by an Oregon sheriff of a Forest Service employee after a planned burn in a national forest spread onto private land. Rick Snodgrass, the US Forest Service "burn boss," was arrested on Oct. 19 and transported to the Grant County Jail, where he was conditionally released. Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley handcuffed Snodgrass before he was taken away, even as Snodgrass' crew was working on the fire, the AP reports. "In my opinion, this arrest was highly inappropriate under these circumstances," Randy Moore, chief of the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, said on the agency's website.

Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter said last week that once an investigation is complete, Snodgrass could be formally charged with reckless burning. Carpenter's office did not immediately return calls and an email requesting an update Tuesday. Carpenter had warned that Snodgrass’ federal employment "will not protect him if it is determined that he acted recklessly," adding it may raise the standard to which he will be held. Snodgrass told the local Blue Mountain Eagle newspaper that his arrest by McKinley disrupted the chain of command while the Forest Service crew was conducting the prescribed burn in the Malheur National Forest.

"Other individuals were able to pick up the slack, fortunately, that were well-trained,” Snodgrass said. "He put not only my guys at risk out there, their safety, but he put that land at risk as well as all of Bear Valley." McKinley said last week that the prescribed fire burned about 20 acres of land belonging to the Holliday family before it was brought under control in an hour. The arrest underscored simmering tensions over management of federal lands in rural, conservative eastern Oregon, the AP notes. In 2016, right-wing militants staged an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in adjacent Harney County to protest the treatment of ranchers Steven Hammond and his father, Dwight, who were both convicted of arson for setting fire to federal range land and sent to prison. They were later pardoned by then-President Donald Trump. (Read more US Forest Service stories.)

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