Forest Service employee’s arrest after fire crosses onto private land sparks larger debate

Starr 6 prescribed fire, Oct. 19, 2022
A Grayback employee at the Starr 6 prescribed fire, Oct. 19, 2022. Tony Chiotti – Blue Mountain Eagle.
Editor's note
This article was written by Blue Mountain Eagle reporter Tony Chiotti who was on the scene of the Starr 6 prescribed on the Malheur National Forest in Oregon before it jumped containment and spread to private land on Oct. 19. In reporting this story, he drew on observations made that day as well as multiple interviews with Forest Service officials, burn crew workers, and landowners. It is used here with permission.

When Rick Snodgrass approached Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley, he thought the sheriff was there to help him.

According to Snodgrass, he’d called for law enforcement to help control aggressive traffic and to deal with harassment his crews had been receiving while implementing a prescribed burn on the Malheur National Forest in Bear Valley, about 7 miles north of Seneca.

That burn — called the Starr 6 — had since jumped the fireline, and now there was active fire on both sides of County Road 63, where Snodgrass and McKinley met: the prescribed burn operation on Malheur National Forest land to the north of the road — now flaring up in gusts of wind — and an uncontained slopover on private land to the south. The crews under Snodgrass’ direction were now attempting to quell one fire while holding the reins on another, with tempers, smoke, wind and now traffic adding to the dangers to his crew.

But instead of assistance, what Snodgrass got was arrested.

When the sheriff cuffed Snodgrass, it is thought to be the first time a U.S. Forest Service firefighter has been arrested in the course of performing their job.

Snodgrass, the “burn boss” on the day’s operation, was taken away from the scene and charged with reckless burning, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $6,250 fine. Before it was contained, an hour after it kicked off, the spot fire burned an estimated 20 to 40 acres of private land owned by members of the Holliday family.

The arrest of Snodgrass on Wednesday, Oct. 19, has drawn national attention and has fanned the debate over Forest Service fire mitigation policies, especially as they pertain to intentional burns adjacent to private lands.

And in the aftermath of this burn, there are accusations on both sides of this contentious debate about which actions on that day deserve the blame. Critics of the Forest Service and the affected landowners feel the conditions on the day never should have allowed the burn to proceed. Others, including Forest Service personnel who planned and executed the burn, say that by arresting the burn boss at the moment of maximum danger, the planned operation and the safety of the crews were placed in jeopardy.

“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, you know, all of Bear Valley.”

The buildup
In 2015 the Canyon Creek Fire, which started with lightning strikes on Malheur National Forest land and spread to private ground, ultimately burned over 110,000 acres and destroyed 43 structures in Grant County.

There is general agreement that a hundred years of fire suppression has led to forests that are overfilled with fuel, a situation made more dangerous by a prolonged drought. Part of Canyon Creek’s legacy is the strongly held and polarized views on how to best prevent catastrophic fires in the future.

Proponents of prescribed burning see the scorched canyons along US 395 as a reminder of the stakes, the need to create buffers, remove built-up fuels and restore forests to a pre-suppression state where they can better survive the inevitable blaze, while critics of federal land management and the Forest Service see a constant reminder of botched containment efforts and mismanaged public land that only fuel their distrust.

“Every individual has a different opinion and motivation,” said Craig Trulock, supervisor of the 1.7 million-acre Malheur National Forest. “You have people that are just anti-federal and don’t want any federal agency doing anything that could affect their lands. Others don’t like prescribed burning for various reasons, whether it’s risk or a sense that it doesn’t achieve what we should be doing out there because they want every log to go on a log truck. And then you have people that are saying, ‘When you burn, would you please burn my property as well?’”

According to Trulock, the burn had been going to plan. “We were within prescription on the burn,” Trulock said, noting he couldn’t say much more as the incident is now the subject of an active federal and local investigation.

Starr 6 prescribed fire, Oct. 19, 2022
Firefighter at the Starr 6 prescribed fire, Oct. 19, 2022. Tony Chiotti – Blue Mountain Eagle.

The fire was the second day of prescribed burning in as many weeks. The burn area planned for Wednesday, Oct. 19, was 300 acres, including trees and meadowland within the Malheur National Forest in an operation involving federal, state and contract firefighting crews, according to information from the Forest Service.

This was among the first prescribed burns to be allowed after a new set of restrictions came into effect this year, following high-profile cases of prescribed burns getting out of control on federal land and causing massive damage, including the Calf Canyon/Hermit’s Peak blaze in New Mexico, which burned several hundred thousand acres and hundreds of structures this spring. After a 90-day pause on all prescribed burns, a revised set of restrictions was published.

As part of those new rules, before ignitions could begin in Bear Valley, a go/no-go checklist had to be completed on site.

This day’s final check represented the end of a multiyear process. That process involved an environmental analysis of the project area that included commercial logging, noncommercial thinning and burning treatments. The burn plan takes the form of a 100-plus-page document, updated year over year as the preparatory steps of thinning, fuel removal and tree grinding continued, all to get the area into ideal shape for a burn.

As part of the new rules, the final ignition authorization had to be signed by four people: the agency administrator, local unit line officer, burn boss, and fire management officer or duty officer. This process only authorizes ignitions for 24 hours, in effect giving all four officers veto power over the burn based on that day’s conditions.

On this day, all four individuals assessed the conditions, and all four signatures were affixed to the burn authorization, meaning ignitions could begin. One of those four signatures belonged to Rick Snodgrass.

Smoldering tensions
The ignition was delayed for about 45 minutes while crews did a grid search to ensure there were no cows in the burn area after hearing reports that the Hollidays still had some “stragglers” left on national forest land, a common occurrence as cows are seasonally moved off grazing allotments. The Windy Point Ranch allotment specified an Oct. 15 “off date,” but Chad Holliday explained that some fence that was burned the previous week, along with gates being left open by fire personnel, meant he couldn’t be sure the cattle were all out.

Initially, the burn went according to plan, with light winds of 0-3 mph and the heat of the fire drawing smoke up into a clean, bent column over the county road. The fire moved slowly across 50 acres over the course of five hours, with fire crews monitoring the progress of its leading front and continuing drip-torch ignitions.

Ignitions paused in the afternoon, to begin again a couple hours later. It was then that the wind picked up and a few trees in the interior of the already-burned area torched, sending up “duffers” with the smoke, up and over the road.

Members of the Holliday family, who own the Windy Point Ranch and other land adjacent to the burn area, were standing across the county road from the fire as an ember from the burn area touched town on their ranch, starting a new fire that soon began to spread.

“We were glad to see Oregon Department of Forestry and Grayback (contract crews) show up,” said Mandy Taylor, Chad Holliday’s sister.

ODF and Grayback Forestry crews were contracted to work alongside Forest Service employees throughout the day’s burn, but due to tensions between the landowners and the federal crews, they were eventually asked to take over mop-up after the flames of the spot fire were extinguished, according to Trulock, who said the move was meant to calm tensions on the scene.

Those kinds of tensions are not unusual.

“I think in a lot of parts of Oregon, it’s just a very real experience for federal employees to have a lot of hostility towards what they’re doing right now,” said Christopher Adlam, a regional fire specialist for Oregon State University’s Extension Service. “I’m not saying that people don’t also appreciate firefighters and thank firefighters. But it’s a pretty common thing in some parts of Oregon for federal employees to face hostility.”

Indeed, federal crews called the regional interagency dispatch center on both days of the burn to report verbal harassment, threats and aggressive driving through the smoke, and to request law enforcement assistance on the scene.

The Hollidays maintain they were welcoming and cooperative with federal crews, providing access to their land in order to contain the blaze. But as the fire spread and crews worked to contain it, the Hollidays called 911. They didn’t call to report the fire. They asked for the sheriff. “We knew that somebody was doing something wrong,” said Taylor.

Planning for contingencies
If you use the phrase “controlled burn” in the vicinity of firefighters operating a prescribed burn, you will be corrected.

This is fire. You don’t control it. The best you can plan for is to manage it and be prepared if the fire has other ideas.

Adlam points out that spillover fires like the one that happened in Bear Valley are rare occurrences but can still have a huge impact on people. “I think that, the last 20 years, we’ve had one other occurrence of a burn crossing over from federal land onto private land in Oregon,” he said.

The Malheur National Forest supervisor notes that the spillover was quickly brought under control.

“They caught it with the resources they had on scene,” said Trulock. He noted that the number of crew on scene before the fire jumped was far more than their own burn plan had recommended, and that the new rules and added caution likely led to their ability to ultimately contain the spot. “We didn’t use any aviation or anything. The only additional resource we brought on was that dozer, and that was to really secure the edge of the spot so that they could then mop it up. So we were staffed enough to actually catch something like this.”

The Grant County Sheriff’s Office and the Forest Service estimated the size of the spot fire as approximately 20 acres. Chad Holliday estimates it as closer to 40, after measuring the perimeter of the area at “exactly one mile.”

“Somebody’s got to be held accountable”
As the federal crews were attempting to control the spot fire on the ranch, McKinley arrived. Chad Holliday received a call from his sister, who was on the scene and told him to get home. He arrived to see Sheriff McKinley speaking with people along the fence.

“I walked up, and Todd said, ‘Chad, right now you’re (being) videorecorded. You’re the spokesman for the ranch. Would you like to press charges?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely. Somebody’s got to be held accountable.’”

Holliday said McKinley then went directly to Snodgrass on the county road and “put the cuffs on him.”

The Eagle has filed a public records request for bodycam footage or any other video taken at the scene during this incident by the Grant County Sheriff’s Office. The newspaper is also seeking any other video footage captured at the scene that could further help establish the sequence of events.

Starr 6 prescribed fire, Oct. 19, 2022
The Starr 6 prescribed fire, Oct. 19, 2022. Tony Chiotti – Blue Mountain Eagle.

“A reasonable person”
The fire was set in the days before predicted rain, and will likely prove to be the last of this year’s short burn season. But the issues surrounding prescribed burning and federal land management, especially as it impacts private landowners, will undoubtedly remain a flashpoint in Grant County.

For now, as the investigation continues, McKinley is playing things close to the vest. He’s declined offers to comment on the case beyond his initial press release, which said “details cannot be released at this time.”

Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter has been slightly more forthcoming, stating in his own press release that just because the burn boss was working as part of a federal crew doesn’t mean he will be shielded from potential legal consequences.

“To be clear, the employer and/or position of Snodgrass will not protect him if it is determined that he acted recklessly,” he wrote. “That the USFS was engaging in a prescribed burn may actually raise, rather than lower, the standard to which Snodgrass will be held.”

Carpenter lays out in his release the full legal standard for determining if a burn is or is not “reckless” as defined in Oregon statute: “The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”

McKinley, known as a level head in the wider context of Grant County politics, might not have intended to make a statement. But this extraordinary arrest has caught national attention and sparked debate in the press and online. And now in the actions of the sheriff and the actions of the Forest Service, both sides see actions that created real danger.

Critics of the Forest Service point to the simple fact that the fire escaped the lines as evidence the conditions were unsafe and that the fire should never have been approved. To the Hollidays, and those skeptical of federal land management in general, it’s a clear measure: the fire got onto their land and threatened or destroyed their property. How could that have been a reasonable thing to do?

It has also stirred the ire of wildland firefighter communities, who fear this development will set a precedent and only complicate an already difficult and dangerous job. And in these groups’ online conversations, it is clear many believe that the arrest created a situation on the ground that may have added to the real risk faced by fire crews in Bear Valley.

“One of the huge watch-out situations in any fire operation is a transition in leadership,” said Trulock. “And that’s when it’s a plan to transition in leadership. This was obviously unplanned. What I would say is there were definite heightened risks because of that action. Until leadership can be reestablished under a new person, then everybody is distracted because they know something happened. And so it created a huge distraction in the middle of what I would consider is a relatively high-risk operation.”

Adlam, the Extension Service fire specialist, agreed.

“The burn boss’s role is never more important than at the moment where something happens that is not part of the plan,” he said. “If you cut off the head of an operation before it’s finished, how is that supposed to be leading to a positive outcome?”

When reached for comment on this story, McKinley clarified why he’s reluctant to say too much at this point.

He said he knows how it appears in the court of public opinion to withhold detail, but added that as long as it protects the process he just doesn’t care. “I just want to respect the case and not get too much detail out so that it doesn’t mess with potential jury pools and all that,” he said, “because then we’d have to have (the trial) out of the area.”

For McKinley, the important thing is that the facts surrounding this case and the decisions of Rick Snodgrass are ultimately determined by 12 reasonable people — ideally, reasonable people from Grant County.

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83 thoughts on “Forest Service employee’s arrest after fire crosses onto private land sparks larger debate”

  1. Not a word about the treatment of the Hammonds for their back burn that spread to Federal land. It has a lot to do with people’s feelings over this matter.

  2. This is a sad reminder of how virtually divided we remain as a nation United we stand Divided we fall

  3. Due to the heated situation and the likely legal ramifications and political fallout I hope that qualified fire investigators were called in to do a thorough Origin and Cause Determination of the spot fire to verify the witness reports that a flare up ignited the spot fire and it was not ignited by the bystanders. If a vegetation fire is deemed “human caused” it should have a full report completed to legal standard to present in court to exclude any other ignition source (USFS policy-but may be up to the state/local unit with jurisdiction on private property). Since it sounds like people were present near the area of ignition near the time the spot fire occurred, they and their vehicles and other tools that could have started the fire need to be excluded as a cause.

  4. Thank you Bill for posting this article. There is so much to unpack here it is hard to wrap my head around. Many of us Burn Bosses and Operations have devoted our careers to allowing #goodfire to play its natural role on our landscapes where and when possible. Prescribed fire and Indigenous burning is a crucial contemporary topic with no shortage of a full spectrum of opinions. This discussion is vital to the health and future resilience of our natural and cultural landscapes, safety of firefighters and communities and for future generations relying on us to step into these paramount conversations and to take meaningful action. Thank you! to all the fire lighters dedicated to this essential mission.

  5. Smells like small town politics, especially with an elected Sheriff. Been on many burns, most went well, some did not. Never knew a Fire Boss to be reckless.

  6. Dispatch- We have an out of state assignment pending for you

    POV- Great…where and when do I need to be there and what am I being ordered as?

    Dispatch- Oregon, east of a small town called Seneca. They are requesting a DIV. Need to be there on Friday


  7. Where were the federal agents on all of this? If not agents, then LEOs? Why were they not involved in all of this?

  8. “We” need to separate fact from fiction. We could start by the factual/scientific foundations supporting or refuting broad, general, vague statements like “100 years of fuel buildup” in each specific case being discussed.

    Seems the sheriff overreacted. Was he or she out of options?

  9. Curious as to who put pressure on thr brun boss to do the burn. From the Fuels Battalion, District Ranger to Forest Chief there’s pressure from on high to make quotas. Not making those quotas or flat out saying no can make some enemies and slander reputation and I hope the burn boss seeks a lawyer in all this.

  10. Good call, IC. I won’t fill any orders to OR either. I’m an EU atgs and will UTF any orders to OR. Not worth it for folks that don’t appreciate us.

  11. Just wondering why we aren’t hearing from government lawyers explaining why this is all bunk? Why isn’t the forest superintendent explaining that all legal fees will be paid by the USFS? We are talking about a jury trial? From a jury based in Grant County? This is insane.

    This is either a “one off” event or a blueprint for other landowners to do the same thing.

    The silence from the USFS is deafening, and they can kiss their Rx program goodbye. Time for a Fire Service, no more joking around about land management when we have people going to jail for doing the work.

  12. Why wasn’t the Dist Ranger and or Forest Supt arrested???? They are the ones pressuring everyone to burn so hard right now!!! On my goofy Ranger District in R2 we have a Ranger that is literally in our sh__ every day pushing for us to burn. Burn, burn, burn! She does this because the Forest Supt is unrelenting and pressures the Ranger, who just passes down the pressure. When we tell we can’t burn a unit, for various reasons, she still continues and won’t let it go. This poor burn boss was likely in a hard spot.

  13. Sheriff didn’t see THIS coming; may have bit off more than he can chew. I’d like to watch him explain this to the good folks of Grant County next summer if this is more than just talk.

  14. Perhaps the forest supervisor should be arrested and charged for operating without social license? The Tony Chiotti article mentions that the Starr 6 Burn on October 19th was the 2nd in as many weeks and was apparently near to or adjacent to the Windy Point Ranch, where critical infrastructure – fences were damaged and gates left open by the burners in the previous burn. So already, the social license was in jeopardy. In other words, the Malheur National Forest began to fray the already tenuous social license.

    What did the forest supervisor learn from his after-action review of the first burn? Or was he content to send his burners out to Starr 6 with his preconceived notions of “Every individual has a different opinion and motivation,”? Did Snodgrass, or Snodgrass’ ranger upwardly brief?

    To then, in this accounting, flip it around to state that the arrest has become a “…huge watch-out situation…” as the forest supervisor uttered and the arrest puts my people at risk, belies the fact that the agency actions are always discretionary. It was a poor option for the Malheur to ignite at that day and time. This is the “social license” that the forest supervisor did not have.

    If the shoe were on the other foot and the Holliday’s were burning on their land which then spotted to the National Forest System lands, Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations would have performed the same actions as did the Grant County Sherriff. Indeed, this actually happened to a sitting United States Member of Congressman, where a “controlled burn” from his property burned on to the local national forest.

    I am drafting this comment from the epicenter of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon inferno, the largest fire in the recorded history of New Mexico. The “burn-boss” who ignited the Las Dispeñsas Burn is the brother-in-law of the county sheriff. He is lucky, unlike Snodgrass, who is obviously not the brother-in-law of the Grant County Sheriff!

    In January of 2022 at the Phoenix Botanical Gardens the secretary of agriculture and the chief of the forest service announced a program to burn 50-million acres of federal, state and private lands over ten years. This would require ignition of 5 million acres per year – the size of Massachusetts every year and would have to occur across the Nation on any given day. And on any given day of the ~3,652 day there will be many Hermits Peak/Calf Canyons. Too much, enough! The concept of burning ourselves to Valhalla is not sustainable.

    The Federal Land Management Agencies have very tenuous social license, for which they must work every day and every burn to achieve and sustain. But their social license is only valid based on discretion, humility and not hubris. For the Nation’s burners consider this a warning.

  15. What keeps echoing in the room for me is that a smalltown rural sheriff arrested a federal employee on the job, an employee in a supervisory position, who was doing his job, and who actually had called for law enforcement response when the agitated locals were hassling his contract crews and state and federal employees.

  16. Dear OldGuy, I doubt there are many if any LEOs stationed at John Day, but even if there are, a long-planned RxFire is not typically on the list of their job duties. Whether they drove from Pendleton or Baker, it’s a good 125 miles. Why do you think they would have been involved? No one besides the burn boss was alleged to have committed any crime, right?

  17. Andrew, exactly. Emails are nice but firefighters don’t place much stock in words. We are an action based group.

    Where is Glenn Casamasa or Alex Robertson? Regional Forester and Regional Fire Director. Where is the defense here for the employee? Where is the DOJ?

    Will the end the subsidies for this ranch? Will the Sheriff be prosecuted?

  18. It will be interesting to watch body cam footage when that is released under freedom of information act.

  19. “verify the witness reports that a flare up ignited the spot fire and it was not ignited by the bystanders”.

    Totally agree.

  20. Good Question….when I was on an engine crew out of BLM Dry Creek and Likely, CA…1991-93…I always seemed to remember a BLM LEO dispatched just for some of these issues

  21. With that ego driven 50 million acres..he had better contact all tribal nations….maybe they could educate the few at the Puzzle Palace on what TRUE acreage could be burned in current day RX burn education and conditions

  22. Pecos Ranger, I think I hear what you’re laying down.

    What you’re saying is a serious call for honest self reflection from another’s perspective. Self examination. You listened to the article and picked up on some potential indicators of a change in “fire behavior”. Burnt fence and open gates. I guess I could figure ranchers are liars and consider those occurrences to NOT be true. I could also figure them no big deal. That would be the easier route. There’s only the benefit of self justification in that route though. I also think, the fed workers probably just overlooked them. I don’t know. That’s just a little blip in build up of a history of many, many, – failures to communicate? Untangling all this will take outside the box extraordinary courage. Personal courage. But where’s the courage? UTF? Human nature is so predictable.

    The norm is to create caricatures. Self justification. Tit for tat. Full display in 200+ comments. Be prepared for your particular caricature. I’ll start… You – “Social License Cop”. But I think you already knew that could be coming. I respect your courage.


  23. “If the shoe were on the other foot and the Holliday’s were burning on their land which then spotted to the National Forest System lands, Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations would have performed the same actions as did the Grant County Sherriff.” Not so sure that would happen in that part of Oregon anymore. You may recall that the Hammonds, ranchers who were convicted of arson (among other crimes) when their fires burned on to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2001 and 2006 were pardoned by President Trump. So when another rancher’s fire burned on to the refuge in March of 2020 starting the Sod House Fire, no charges were even filed.

  24. To UTF, Then you won’t be a certified Type I IC very long. With your attitude, I’d pull your Cert in a heart beat.

  25. Andrew, see my reply to Pecos Ranger above. To answer your question, the reason is probably the Bundy Standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The DOJ got their asses kicked trying to prosecute that, as they did trying to prosecute the other Bundy standoff in Nevada in 2014. Now they are scared to even bring charges against anti-Fed extremists in that part of the world. And it may not be beyond thought that maybe the Holliday’s dropped a match on purpose to set up another confrontation.

  26. I would suggest that everyone supporting the RXB2 take a deep breath. I also support him. From what I have read on this site, I will rightfully assume the RXB2 was operating fully within the scope of his duties. I will also assume that burn was planned and he burned his plan. No negligence on his part. If my assumptions are correct, the case against him will be dismissed and the USFS will be named as the defendant. At that point, the discretionary function comes in to play and there are countless cases relating to wildland fire where the precedent of discretionary function has been used to successfully defend IC’s, IMT’s and Burn Bosses. The OGC will ultimately defend the case should it go to court not the DOJ. As this is a open case do not expect the OGC, to comment, that not how they roll on open cases. As Federal Wildland Fire Management Professionals, keep doing what you do, do it to the best of your ability and know that you make a positive difference. Should any of what I share not hold true, I will gladly eat my words and put in my personal plug to get your PLI and keep it current.

  27. Good thing you’re not in charge, eh?
    It’s a clear and present danger to my team and I will not tolerate it. We will not dispatch to OR. It has been decided.

  28. Five million a year isn’t as much as it sounds. Florida burns over two million acres a year, while both Georgia and Kansas burn over one million a year each. Yes, the KS burns are mostly grass, but FL and GA burn a lot of forestland. The acreage isn’t unreasonable. Instead, the issue is – as you said – social license. FL and GA never lost it, but the west lost it decades ago. How do you get that back?

  29. Was the slopover on to private ever declared a wildfire? By policy it’s required unless there is an agreement in place with the land owner.

  30. You don’t need night shift, 5 handcrews and a strike team of engines to burn 5000 acres in Florida. On some Western RX you need that for 150 acres. Not even remotely the same.

    Florida and coastal plain timber needs regular 1-5 year fire entries to remain healthy. Southern rough at 20 year interval is comparable to 40′ Manzanita under 100′ conifers. Simply an unfair comparison. Completely different fuels/ecosystem. Not to mention that a lot of the prep work can be done with dozers and requires almost no saw work in the coastal plain.

    Let’s look at holding…heavy equipment, wet UTVs, and there are always type 1 and 2 ships around during this burn season.

    Oh…the burn season is 3-5 months long. Not 2-4 weeks as in the west.

    Just not a good comparison friend.

  31. “This would require ignition of 5 million acres per year – the size of Massachusetts every year and would have to occur across the Nation on any given day. And on any given day of the ~3,652 day there will be many Hermits Peak/Calf Canyons. Too much, enough! The concept of burning ourselves to Valhalla is not sustainable.”

    Not only that, vegetation has a bad habit of growing back, sometimes more flammable than before, sometimes worsening the laddering issue, not to mention “thinning” bigger rather than the lesser sticks that are where the laddering problem lies.

  32. So burning leaves in the winter in the southeast has something to do with burning in the mountainous western US? Carl get real.

  33. Having worked under Trulock I am not at all surprised that he neglected to mention one of the most “popular” demands of the public. When Trulock said: “You have people that are just anti-federal and don’t want any federal agency doing anything that could affect their lands.” If he (Trulock) was really and truly aware of and in touch with the public he would have also added that there are people who are anti-federal and don’t want the federal agencies doing anything UNTIL THERE IS A FIRE. Then they want the federal agencies to put them out. It highlights the hypocrisy, inconsistency and ignorance of many. Not a small issue to leave out.

  34. Seriously?? Haven’t you been paying attention?? the Malheur NWR situation with the Bundys should provide you with a more-than-adequate answer.

  35. Curious if anyone on scene, landowners or burn crew, thought they shouldn’t be burning that day. Sounds like the private landownr was aware of the burn. So if none of these “reasonable” people had issue before hand, I find it hard to believe it was such an obviously bad decision to burn.
    I see getting getting adjacent landowner approval for burns in the near future.

  36. How would a change of letterhead have prevented the arrest? Whenever some issue in firefighting/RX comes up there is always someone banging the drum on creation of a new national firefighting organization as if centralization and a new bureaucracy will solve all firefighter problems. I’m cautious just based on the experience of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which consistently rates lowest amongst surveys of federal workers amongst many other problems reported over the years about the combination of different departments.

  37. So burning in the south is just burning leaves? When’s the last time you had to worry about a 100 car pile-up with 5 dead people on a burn? Unfortunately that’s a too common occurrence in the south, due to it’s more humid environment. The idea the all burns in the south are low complexity while all those in the west are high complexity is patently false. Pit one part of the fire community against another and the entire community loses.

  38. Yes, there are different fuel types across the country. And yes, the burn season in the south is longer than in the west. Further, the hyper-frequent fire regime in the south means that, for a given acre, the south will always burn more through time. All that’s true, but it misses the point.

    In a different thread, “My How Things Have Changed” posted about how the old CDF and private land owners burned significantly more acres then CA now burns. He even provided documentation ( Yes, the past isn’t the present. And the south isn’t the west. That doesn’t mean the west can’t learn from the south – or it’s own past.

  39. Dear Crazy Sheriffs of the Nation,

    Please refrain from arresting further burn bosses, they are low on the totem pole. Kindly start arresting the Forest Supervisors and District Rangers since they are the ones you really want. Forest Supervisors and Dist Rangers are the ones calling the shots and often compel these burn bosses to put fire on the ground.

    Thank You,
    Forest Service Firefighters.

  40. Also having worked under Trulock, I’m not surprised at this and still find him to be underwhelming.

  41. And now the USFS is planning to do similar burns in the adjoining part of the SFNF, the Santa Fe Mountains Project. The potential burn area maps in the EA show they will be burning right up to WUI property lines. I live in the WUI, and our WUI here is fairly populated. Many of us feel much safer if the USFS does not burn, and feel that burning here will endanger us and our homes. We should be included in the decision process. Writing EA comments is fairly meaningless and duly largely ignored. It feels like an aggression on our safety, and on our properties. The USFS needs to do a much better job of working with the landowners nearby where they want to burn. I don’t know what it would take to regain any trust, but they haven’t even begun to do it.

    After the Santa Fe Mountains Project EA being withdrawn due to the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, the USFS plans to reinitiate the exact same EA, without even a tweak, very soon. The EA has no mention of even the possibility of an escaped prescribed burn, so therefore there is no cost/benefit analysis and no mitigations. The adjoining Gallinas Municipal Watershed WUI Project EA had a whole section on the “potential for escaped burns” and it was identified as one of the three key issues. This is the EA under which the Las Dispensas burn and Calf Canyon pile burns were done. To believe that an escaped prescribed burn is essentially a non-issue after the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire is unbelievable, or that sufficient risk analysis can be done just within the burn plan.

    The firefighters are paying the price for this hubris. And certainly landowners, including in the case of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, families who have lived on the land for generations.

  42. Sorry UTF, that’s clearly NOT your call to make. Like it’s been said by others, you are messing around and not a true Type I IC at all. Enough said.

  43. True, but you may have to just say no some days. I know that is so easier said than done. What if burn bosses just refuse to do burns under marginal conditions? Would you lose your jobs? Burn bosses could unite on this.

    I know that would be very stressful, but what other option is there right now?

  44. As a former DR and Forest Supervisor, there is NO RISK for a Burn Boss to say “it’s marginal to do the Rx burn right now.” It’s their call on the ground; not by a desk jockey miles away. Where is the District FMO on all of this? He/she has the oversight to say “yea or nay,” well before the DR or Supvr get involved.

  45. I believe Craig Trulock is shielding his fire staff (Fire Staff Officer. FMO, Rx Fire Specialst, Fuels Specialist, Fire Module, etc) from heat from outside forces. They still have work to do in their jobs. I found Trulock to be a good Assistant Forest Supv in his previous job, maybe reserved, but efficient and understanding, not loud, but fully competent. I expect the charges to be dismissed.

  46. Sarah,
    No I would not lose my job. Although I hold a RXB2 qualification nowhere in my PD does it state that I shall use it. IFPM states that I must have it to hold my job but not that I have to burn. I have no problem whatsoever saying no to DR’s and Forest Supts since I have positively no respect for mere titles or position power, I simply do not care and find titles utterly unimpressive.

    Just because I am more than willing to say no doesn’t mean everyone is. I have seen people worn down by ignorant and overzealous Dist Rangers and Line Officers that are itching to look good for their supervisors. Gone are the days of “Old Guy” DR’s and Forest Supts that would defer to their experts, and lead up to their bosses with potentially “bad” news. They would go to bat. Now, most of our leadership is fresh out of college, utterly ignorant and lack experience. Their only preoccupation is self promotion. Some are even in the 4hr leave category!!!!

    I predict many of us will start just saying no, and allllllll this talk of Rx burn targets will sputter and fall out of the sky since us Burn Bosses are the single keystone that defines success or failure. WE have the power and WE can say yes or no. The sooner some of our wet behind the ears leadership get that the better off we’ll all be.

  47. Doesn’t matter. It’s the law. We live in a country of rules and if the USFS has to follow them then so does local law enforcement. Local politics be damned.

  48. Wow I would like to commend the newspaper for a thorough non-biased report on the incident. I would also like to thank the Burn boss and the DIstrict Manager for actually putting out a statement. I’m sick of federal firefighters getting slandered in the media (Like the 60 Minutes Caldor Fire report) and then there’s no comment from the agency..We have to be bold enough to put out a statement whether we’re in the right or in the wrong.. Lastly, in regards to the Holiday Family. I’m sorry about their loss, but they seem like extreme outliers in the west, not because of their distrust of the federal government, but because they are hostile to fuels reduction projects going on in federal land that directly benefits their property. It’s unfortunate that the fire spotted on to their property, I’m willing to bet if it was contained in an hour that it did more harm than good. Any infrastructure that got damaged will 100% get replaced. Sheesh,I am getting a 100 calls a year right now from neighbors wanting to know why we are not doing fuels work on public land that borders their property

  49. Every firefighter on the burn should drop tools and turn themselves in to the Sheriff for their part in the ‘reckless burning.’ No other crews should take an assignment as they would expose themselves to accessory after the fact charges.

  50. I absolutely agree. If I was the RXB1/2 I’d call our FS LEOs to make sure this doesn’t happen. I don’t think the sheriff has the authority to arrest a federal employee performing official duties. Obstructing a federal employee, especially a burn boss who is responsible for everything and everyone assigned to the burn. The FS and OGC must make a point of this if they want to keep us on track. That said, where I live, this would not happen. Our relationship with the local sheriff’s department is great.

  51. Another “POV”:
    Until recent years the state of Florida had the record for the most structures lost in a fire. This was in a year of extreme conditions. Much like when we are losing structures in the west. Florida burns more acres than any state in the US. Yet when faced with unfavorable fire conditions there were still high loss of structures.

    That being said I am certainly a believer in RX and am currently just about finished with my RXB2 taskbook. I think it is an important piece of our puzzle of mitigation action to protect infrastructure and in some cases restore/revitalize ecosystems. I just think the emphasis that is placed on RX leads to “right tool, wrong time”. If an area/region/state is in a long term drought/ has a deficit in fuel moisture that may require agressive patrolling and staffing for days after a burn perhaps it’s time to think about focusing on mechanical “RX”.

    To bring this all “together”…
    We are going to lose structures in extreme conditions regardless of the amount of RX that occurs. It’s going to happen. Will we save more structures in areas that we have burned? If resources are plentiful, most likely yes. If we are in PL3 or above chances decrease. PL3 seems more and more like PL4/5 with available overhead and equipment. And then you have RX that turns into a mega fire and created more bad than good for the agency. I think it’s much more complex than saying “this is what they used to do so why aren’t we doing it now?”. If an individual is willing to make their self vulnerable/liable for what may or may not benefit landowners/homeowners/publi infrastructure I hope that it is because it is the right time for the right tool.

    I do appreciate your comment and recognize that we must take into consideration our past and learn from different regions to apply some strategy to RX in these at risk areas. Thanks for your “POV”. Something I want to keep in front of my mind going forward.

  52. Agreed. Add Regional Foresters, Regional Fuels, and especially W.O. Staff and Generals to the list to be arrested before burn bosses do.

  53. How much is this bonus? Could we get some documentation presented here?

  54. The article is about how this incident sparks a bigger debate. Here are the issues as I see it.

    1) There are a lot of fuels that need to be reduced across the US.
    2) There is not enough FS and NPS staff to manage the lands.
    3) The FS will not support you.

    It’s really that simple…The solutions are more complicated.

    1) Reduce the fuels. In some cases, it means grazing the land, in some cases it means cutting and treating and in some cases, it means prescribed fire. Which leads us to #2.
    2) There is not enough staff to manage the land. The FS/NPS needs to get away from the Zone concept. It’s not working. Both agencies are burning the people they have out. Both agencies need to hire more people and pay them well. FS stop this infighting about experience vs. educated, scientist vs. non-scientist and get back to work.
    3) The FS will not support you. If I could give the burn boss some advice. Get a good lawyer. Be nice, but don’t trust anyone. I just found out Monday that I lost both my cases. It’s devastating. I trusted FS and the system and they both screwed me. People who I called friends and family screwed me. They lied to save themselves. So, don’t trust them, especially their lawyers.

    My gut reaction is to say get rid of the FS, but after talking to Congress, I realized that will never happen. The money and power is too great. What I can say is, if you work for the FS, please leave…find another job, don’t let them ruin your career. Losing all your money, losing friends and family, losing your career is not worth it. The FS will not support you.

    Good luck out there and stay safe. There are people who love you. Peace out!

  55. A truly terrible outcome, albeit not the last of this incident. What this really points to is a totally dysfunctional relationship between the feds and the community/local government. Failure to identify and address that issue before undertaking any the operation, thus putting the burn boss and all other involved personnel at risk, rests squarely on forest leadership.

  56. Social License To Operate (SLO). Had to look that one up, I’m a little slow. It’s “a project having ongoing approval and social acceptance within the local community.” Is this even possible, when at any time, firefighters can go from heroes to zeroes in the public eye, won or lost with one spotfire caught or not, on wildfires or Rx burns?

    Public understanding of wildfire and at a minimum, public tolerance of firefighters requires ongoing public education, the domain of public affairs specialists, not operations people or ICs. On wildfires, public information officers are on the IC’s command staff, whether they are deserving and capable of that distinction or clearly not, to explain, represent, and defend firefighters to the media and the public – sharing their successes, explaining operational failures with expertise and tact.

    Send a good PIO to visit the site of an Rx burn in the days before and then staying on scene throughout, someone who knows wildfire, who can spike out, who isn’t afraid of ranchers and farmers, someone who even likes ranchers and farmers. That’s a better stroke than sending an LEO (the local sheriff).

    The USFWS pioneered federal Rx programs in the South, how do they still do it, in the South? They have spotfires too. It’s past time the USFS makes public information and public affairs a serious priority, led by more than cheerleaders and stapler-operators. Maybe hire someone from outside the agencies, someone sharp and savvy, someone who can sell it, baby. You can find me next to the lost and found.

  57. Emotions and policy aside, this is legally pretty simple. The burn boss, as a federal official operating within the scope of his duties, has zero liability to prosecution for any perceived state crime arising from the performance of those duties. As probable ardent “constitutionalists”, im suprised the sherrif and his landowner friends are unfamiliar with the supremacy clause of the constitution. The sheriff, in this case, is the one who committed a crime, namely interference with a federal official and wrongful arrest. It’s time for DoJ to get involved, and stop treating these eastern Oregon extremists with kid gloves. Prosecute the sheriff in federal court.

  58. Of course you are spot on. But it won’t happen for one reason: Bundy. The precedent has been set by them and now Fed law enforcement cowars.

  59. The FS needs to stop worrying about the WUI. It’s the Forest Service not the fire department. Treat the forest and stop getting so damn involved in trying to keep houses from burning. If people want to live in the WUI they can figure out their own mess.

  60. I’ll just say what I know about the August complex, which was admittingly like looking at things through a straw as I was just another fire engine guy who was there. Things were bad but not because people were trying to get fuels targets. There were not enough firefighters to go around. We had maybe 25% of the people we needed to actually have a prayer of success on our division. I remember a lot of burnouts that didn’t ultimately hold once the wind picked up with the alternative of trying to fight fire in the communities threatened themselves an even worse idea. Pure last ditch defense tactics. Then there were the old disabled people in the community with nowhere else to go and no money to rebuild once things turned south. And all the fire personnel from the area with their houses threatened or already impacted by the wildfire. Not to mention the families with young kids who refused to evacuate. What I’m getting at is lots of people with lots to lose who fire staff interacting with daily, sometimes for years in the case of folks out of the community. Given the apocalyptic nature of the 2020 season in California I find it pretty laughable that anyone was trying to make fires bigger for fuels targets. With personnel shortages USFS overhead had their hands full just trying to keep butts in seats on trucks to meet minimal staffing requirements let alone worrying about crap like fuels targets.
    When that thing got going the writing was already on the wall with resource shortages across the nation, we were screwed.

  61. A good part of the animosity towards USFS employees by the local ranchers is that they don’t really accept that the NF is federal land — they think that because they have grazing permits, it’s their land to do what they want, when they want. Any land management activity is going to draw their ire, as is any activity that interferes with what they (the ranchers) want to do.

    In our current highly divisive political climate, this sort of activity is going to increase. Especially with rural sheriffs that are buying into the Constitutional Sheriff argument.

  62. First off I have not heard that anything was damaged, other than grass… The tort claim process, while lengthy is usually pretty fair. There is plenty of documentation in this case. This is not even something that would go to court, just fill out the Tort claim paperwork..I’ve had crew members compensated for damage done to their vehicles when they were away on fires.

  63. If he is actually charged, DOJ can then come in and argue that the charges impede an overriding federal purpose. We just need to see if he’s charged for now.

  64. This is a criminal charge-discretionary function only works under civil cases filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act. It is not the function of OGC to defend employees in court. DOJ holds that responsibility. I don’t think in a criminal case the United States can substitute itself for the employee defendant.

  65. Sarah. Would you feel safer if the USFS did not fight a wildfire coming off of FS land onto your WUI area because they thought they might be arrested for trespassing? By the way what have the property owners in the WUI done to protect them selves? Establish a private fire protection district paid for by the property owners? Building codes, fuel reduction around every building, water sources??

  66. In this case, DOJ may step in and defend the employee on the grounds that the arrest conflicts with an overriding federal purpose. The question I don’t know the answer to and would take some research is whether the case can be removed to federal court.

What do you think?