The timeline for the Oregon rancher-arsonists

Malheur Refuge sign
Photo by Judith Bell

With the break-in and occupation by armed protesters of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon grabbing national attention it’s a good time to take a detailed look at what actually happened over the last 22 years that led up to this incident.

Some of the protesters appearing in front of news cameras repeatedly refer to the arrest, convictions, and sentencing of Dwight Hammond, Jr., and his son, Steven Hammond who set fires on Bureau of Land Management property not far from the Wildlife Refuge.

Dwight and Steven Hammond.
Dwight and Steven Hammond.

In addition to raising cattle on their own property, the Hammonds paid a small fee for their cattle to graze on BLM land. In 2015 the rate was $1.69 per animal per month. There is no charge for calves. If they were paying open market rates instead of taxpayer subsidized rates it would cost them about 12 times as much.

There is a lot of misinformation being thrown around about why or if the Hammonds lit fires on public land. An example occurred on January 4 when CNN reporter Paul Vercammen mischaracterized the crimes committed by the two ranchers that triggered the protests and federal property take over. Mr. Vercammen, in explaining what led to the occupation, described the actions of the Hammonds as “arson on their own property”, when in fact on at least two occasions they illegally set fires on public land administered by the BLM.

Below is the timeline that we have developed from court documents, information provided by U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesperson Gerri Badden, and other sources provided by some of our loyal readers.

You will find that on two occasions, in 2001 and 2006, the Hammonds set fires that endangered wildland firefighters, forcing them to take evasive action when their safety was compromised. In one case they conscripted a 13-year old to help ignite a fire who was too successful. He found himself surrounded by flames and fearing for his life. A group of three hunters, whose location was known to the Hammonds, were also threatened by one of the fires and had to hurriedly evacuate the area without having time to pack up the equipment at their campsite. The Hammonds also had several previous run-ins with the legal system that until now have not been general knowledge.

The Timeline

1994, August 5 — Dwight and Steven Hammond were arrested and spent two nights in custody. Federal employees of the Malheur National Wildlife refuge were attempting to build a fence on refuge property to keep the Hammonds’ cattle from trespassing on federal land. (There is some dispute about this exact date, but court records show that it occurred on August 5, 1994.)

From High Country News:

On the day the fence was to be built, the crew and refuge officials arrived to find Hammond had parked his Caterpillar scraper squarely on the boundary line and disabled it, removing the battery and draining fuel lines. When a tow truck arrived to move it, Dwight Hammond showed up, leaped to the controls of the scraper and hit a lever that lowered the bucket, narrowly missing another special agent. Meanwhile, said [Special Agent Earl M.] Kisler, Steve Hammond shouted obscenities at federal officials. Neither Hammond resisted arrest.

The original charge was a felony, “Forcibly impede, intimidate and interfere with federal officers engaged in the performance of their official duties”.

The High Country News reported that many sources applied a great deal of pressure on the BLM and the Secretary of the Interior, protesting the arrests. Some employees received phone calls and death threats at their homes.

1994, August 15 — The charges were reduced to a misdemeanor for both Steven and Dwight Hammond, to “Interfering with Government Employees and Private Parties”.

1997, July 16 the “Interfering” cases were dismissed by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

1999 — Steven was arrested and convicted for interfering with lawful users of public lands.  On Oct. 9, 1999, he interfered with a lawful hunt being conducted by a hunting guide and his party.  On March 9, 2000, he was sentenced to 3 years of probation.

2001, September 30 — Hardie-Hammond Fire.

According to testimony from a commercial hunting guide, his two clients, and Dusty Hammond the grandson to Dwight Hammond and nephew to Steven Hammond, their family and friends were hunting when shots were fired from the group into a herd of deer on BLM land. The guide said four bucks were crippled, but the Hammond hunting party did not track or collect any deer.

Later, Steven, with Dwight at his side, handed out boxes of matches to everyone in the party including 13-year old Dusty. Their instructions were to “light up the whole country on fire”. They went off in different directions and began igniting fires, but Dusty was by himself, following a path pointed out by Steven. He was at first unsuccessful in getting the vegetation to ignite, but after Steven showed him how to use several of the “strike anywhere” matches together, he was creating eight to ten-foot flames which at one point surrounded and entrapped him causing him to fear for his life —  “I thought I was going to get burned up”, he said. The fires were lit along the line between their property and public land, and spread onto public land.

Gerri Badden, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, said the motive for setting the fires was to cover up the illegal slaughter of the deer which was witnessed by the hunting guide, the guide’s two hunters, and was affirmed by Dusty.

Two hours after igniting the fires Steven called the BLM to report that they were going to burn invasive species.

The hunting guide saw that the fire was moving toward their camp and was concerned about his safety and that of his two clients from Utah. The three of them evacuated from the area without even taking the time to break down and remove their equipment at the camp. As they drove away they were able to see the flames of the fire in the area they had left. Testimony in the trial indicated that the Hammonds were aware of the location of the guide and his clients before lighting the fires since they flew their airplane over the area earlier that morning.

Later in the day Dwight and Steven took to the sky again in their airplane to examine the burnt area, telling Dusty they were going to check to see if the fire got rid of the juniper, which is an invasive species that robs water from grasses grazed by cattle.

Dusty said that when the Hammond hunting party returned to the house after setting the fires, “Dwight told me to keep my mouth shut, that nobody needed to know about the fire”. Eight years later 21-year old Dusty told investigators why he waited so long to speak up about the arson, saying that if Steven heard he provided information he would come to Dusty’s front door and kill him. 

The writers of the sentencing report said the setting of the fires created a “conscious or reckless risk of death or serious bodily injury” to individuals including Dusty Hammond. The fires burned 139 acres of federal land.

2004 — Steven allegedly “sandpapered” off the chest of Dusty Hammond, then age 16, two initials he had tattooed on himself. Steven was charged with Criminal Mistreatment, but the charges were dismissed in 2005 when he entered into a diversion program.

A police report about the incident was introduced in the 2012 trial as evidence along with photos after the Hammonds referred to themselves as “dedicated family men who are highly regarded in their community”.

2006, August 17 — Steven told a BLM employee that he and Dwight had been setting fires in the area for years. Steven also said to not be surprised if more fires appeared after the next lightning storm in the area.

(Note from Bill: a resident who lives in a forested area told me that he has used lightning storms as cover for lighting fires. He assumed that one more fire, if several were started in the county, would not be looked at closely by investigators.)

2006, August 21 — A lightning storm hit the Steens Mountain area and ignited several fires, including the Krumbo Butte Fire. Dwight encountered the same BLM employee he had talked with on August 17 who was assigned to suppress the fire, telling him he wished the fires were larger.

2006, August 22 —  A firefighter assigned to the Krumbo Butte Fire with his crew that was spending the night on a hill saw three small fires below their location. The fire behavior and calm winds at the time made it very unlikely that they could have been spot fires started from embers generated by the main fire. When the three fires grew together he worried that the new fire could run up the hill endangering the crew. Concerned there was an active arsonist in the area, he moved the crew to a safer location.

2006, August 23 — Steven admitted to one of the firefighters that he set the fires the previous night “to provide feed for his cattle”, according to the BLM report about the Hammonds’ grazing permit. The report also goes into much detail about suspicious fires that started that day in an area near where Steven and Dwight were seen in the general vicinity of the main fire, the Krumbo Butte Fire. These new ignitions compromised the safety of firefighters nearby, some of whom were forced to retreat from the area. They were given advice and led to safety via radio by an orbiting Air Attack. Again, this occurred in a location that virtually ruled out ignition caused by embers from the main fire; one was three miles away.

Dwight had disappeared into the vegetation but when he was spotted by a firefighter who told him to stop, fled, but he eventually stopped.

Later a fire investigator determined that seven fires were intentionally set.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Hammonds’ motive for setting the fires was to protect their winter feed. Steven ignited the fires during a county wide burn ban and while a “red flag warning” was in effect, without notice or permission and while knowing BLM contract firefighters were in the area.

2006, August 24 — Steven was arrested for questioning about the suspicious fires.

2011 — Steven was convicted of unsworn falsification in state court for forging a landowner’s preference hunting form.

2012, June 21 — After a trial over arson charges, the jury found Dwight and Steven Hammond guilty of the 2001 arson and Steven Hammond of the 2006 arson, and not guilty of other arson charges.  While the jury was deliberating on the remaining charges, the Hammonds negotiated a settlement with the government which resulted in acceptance of the guilty verdicts, the dismissal of the remaining charges, and a promise from the government not to recommend a sentence greater than the mandatory minimum of 5 years.  The Hammonds acknowledged in open court that they knew the mandatory minimum prison term they were facing was 5 years.

2012, October 25 — The sentencing report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office recommend a 78-month prison sentence for Steven Hammond and a 63-month prison sentence for Dwight Hammond. The government kept its promise and asked for the minimum mandated by law, five years.  The government argued the Hammonds were “arsonists,” not “terrorists.”

2012, October 30 — Dwight was given 12 months in prison and Steven received 3 months.

The U.S. Attorney appealed the sentences, since they did not conform to federal sentencing laws, and the appeals court imposed the required five year sentence. The Hammonds appealed that revised sentence all the way to the Supreme Court and lost in March, 2015.

2013, January 4 — The Hammonds began serving their prison time. Dwight was released in March, 2013 and Steven in January, 2014.

2014, February 14 — The BLM denied the renewal of the Hammonds’ grazing permit, citing the arson convictions and other issues.

2014, December 4 — A civil suit related to the arson brought against the Hammonds by the federal government was settled, with Dwight and Steven agreeing to pay $200,000 each. If they had to sell their property in order to make the payments, under the agreement the government had first right of refusal. However the two payments of $200,000 were received, and there was no sale of property.

2015, October 7A federal judge re-sentenced the Hammonds to five years. They were scheduled to return to prison January 4, 2016.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

25 thoughts on “The timeline for the Oregon rancher-arsonists”

  1. If you want to post information about this issue, great. But please vet it first, to ensure accuracy. One thing we don’t want to do is add to the existing plethora of misinformation.

  2. You are absolutely correct Mr. Gabbert. I was incorrect and apologize. There has been a bunch of misinformation as you say.

  3. Another thank you for this info. It is frankly more extensive and better sourced than any of the news outlets i’ve seen covering the issue. Most just cover it by giving only the rancher’s side of the story or a one line explanation of the arson.

  4. Bill, Thanks for the facts in a simple, unbiased way and letting us decide what to think. Too bad the mainstream media has forgotten the basics of reporting but it’s nice to have someone doing exactly that in this case.

  5. This is all great background information about the “supposed” reason for the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge but in my opinion, we need to keep in mind the Bundy Boy Terrorist Group’s real issue is a larger agenda about the management of federal lands in the West and the degree to which they ought to be under local control. They are using the contentious Hammond sentencing to try and gain sympathy for their cause.

  6. I encourage yiou to watch this video. It will shed much needed light. Because calling them arsonist, well that doesn’t fit the true narrative. On all acxounts from credible sources and documentation from the government and statements made by the Judge that handed out the original sentencing, they have been on the wrong end of an overbearing political agenda.

  7. Initially the referenced portrayal of people and events by Representative Walden left a very large positive impression. But on further reflection, the huge differences in detail between that story can only mean reality is being mightily “spun”. And I’ve seen no good reason to treat Representative Walden’s portrayal as more “true” than others.

    Some specific examples of the disturbing differences: Representative Walden’s portrayal tells only of ranchers being asked to absorb the cost of fences. It makes no mention of the incident described here where the BLM tried to install a fence, but was thwarted by equipment positioned directly over the fenceline then disabled. Representative Walden’s portrayal describes a specific case where a backfire was set in the wrong way and so endangered lives. It makes no mention of the at least two incidents reported here where the Hammonds similarly endangered lives. Representative Walden’s portrayal strongly implies (yet does not say explicitly) there was only a single “backfire”. Yet here we see a record of multiple questionable fires over a period of at least fifteen years.

  8. I am glad I had an opportunity to read all what was presented thank you for putting it together and making available for anyone trying to get at truth.

  9. Was not mentioned, that the fence the BLM were building was fencing out Harmmonds cattle from water hole

  10. Thank you for providing a timeline of info. missing in coverage of this situation. As a longtime reporter and now freelancer, due to the lack of integrity allowed by media employers, I’ve questioned all the holes in coverage on both sides of the issue while studying what’s out there. Wow, old-school reporting would involve: gathering a timeline of info.; working on gathering info. from both sides; analyzing; double-checking facts; interviewing more parties involved on both sides of the issue; triple checking; and giving it a rest before returning to write a balanced, well-researched article or series based on facts, research and interviews. Thank you for providing pertinent info. to those trying to wrap their heads around this situation before making a judgment call! Please keep me updated, as there is so much more info. needed before a legitimate story will be written.

  11. Here’s a fact that just isn’t being talked about. That fact is that the Hammonds were tried in a court of law and agreed in a plea bargain before the court. They are guilty to the act of ARSON. This is not a single act, but they intentionally set multiple fires. They set the original fire and then AFTER they knew that FIREFIGHTERS were on the scene risking their lives in an attempt to save private as well as public lands. These courageous firefighters were putting their lives in jeopardy defending the land, structures and lives of those in the path of the fire. The Hammonds then started additional fires trapping the firefighters. The fact is that the Hammonds showed no regard for the lives of the firefighters that were on the fire line. Those brave men and women that were trapped between the two raging fires barely made it safety. They had done nothing to the Hammonds and certainly did not deserve the peril their lives faced. I certainly do not consider the Hammonds as just good ole boys doing what has been done for decades. Upstanding ranchers DO NOT intentionally set multiple fires trapping courageous firefighters between multiple raging fires. Who is speaking for those individuals? Shame on you Hammonds and shame on those of you who even now do not hold them responsible for their actions. We should be holding the lives of the FIREFIGHTERS who were dispatched to fight the fires in the highest regards. Who is speaking for them? I for one do not feel that the Hammonds deserve any clemency. Do you want to know the truth? If you do talk to one of them and they can tell you about the inferno that they were trapped in.

  12. Thank you very much for this. I only live a couple hours west of there and of course the whole area is divided on the issue. I lost all sympathy for the Hammonds when I found out about setting the backfire below the fire crew. I was initial attack for ODF (state agency protecting private land) here in Oregon and one of the biggest concerns was uncoordinated actions taken by landowners.

  13. Good write up. Old school reporting and fact checking presented in a neutral manner. Modern media is for the most part producing stories of questionable reliability and truth. As a long time reporter friend of mine said of the modern media, Its all about the ratings, because that’s were the money is. With a wink of his eye he also said, The truth is often boring and gets no response.

  14. That is part of why the fence was needed– because of the way constant use by cows affects the water hole. Since the Hammonds *did not own* the canal at which they had been watering their cows, it was going to be necessary for them to find some other way to water those cows, or change their grazing arrangements in some way. No matter how much they may complain, having used some resource in the past does not entitle them to keep using it forever.

  15. The fence was being built by the USFWS, not the BLM, to keep the Hammond’s cattle off the refuge. Yes, there’s a pond there, but the pond is on refuge property and the Hammonds have no right to run their cows there for water. A basic rule in open range land is that if you want to keep cattle off your property, you are responsible for building the fence that will do so, not the rancher. That’s what happened in this case. The refuge was exercising its right to keep the Hammond’s cattle from tresspassing on the refuge, by building a fence on refuge property to keep the cattle out.

  16. That is full of misinformation. Thanks to the author of this blog for publishing accurate information.

  17. Many sides to this issue, always be cautious when information (facts) are quoted in relatively small sections. As you can see by the posts there are many additional facts to most of the issues. The lead into the article was from a very pro Government view, not a problem but don’t state just the facts when you feel strongly on one side as the facts you see as relevant will lead to a particular conclusion. That human trait in all of us is referred to as “confirmation bias”.

    There is a huge issue with Government control and frankly the “we no better” culture that has developed in many bureaucracies regardless of how well intended. With that said I have absolutely no sympathy for the Hammond’s, they were found guilty of committing a serious crime and the excuse offered, even if completely true shouldn’t change the conviction or sentencing for the crime as it was no excuse for what they did.

    The militia who took over the refuge is as wrong in their tactics, civil disobedience can be acceptable but not at the cost of others safety, including Federal Employees. On the other side, the federal land agencies iron fisted control of lands to meet objectives solely determined by the bureaucracy that once were essentially open for use by anyone is equally unacceptable. Public lands have many constituents but the only one that matters anymore is the bureaucracy (government), and the level of frustration among the public is so much more significant that the bureaucracy is willing to even consider I fear that there will be many more dangerous side shows like this before any resolution is found.

  18. If they could have payed 200k both for fines then it seems like they could of drilled a well. I have never heard of people with that kind of money who were farmers. Do you really want to buy their beef.
    As for the rest of the protesters are they all that rich. Here in the Blue Ridge you have to buy permits to get Ginsing and it is hard to even get fire wood. I would hate to see what they would if they lived here.

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