Union takes a position on the arrest of a firefighter during a prescribed fire

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

On November 2, 2022 the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) issued the following statement about the federal employee who was arrested by the Grant County Oregon sheriff last month. At the time the firefighter was running the operation as the Burn Boss on the Starr 6 prescribed fire when it grew unexpectedly and spread onto about 20 acres of private land.

Today, the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) strongly condemns the wrongful arrest of Rick Snodgrass, a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) wildland firefighter who was working as an active “burn boss” when taken into sheriff’s custody on October 19, 2022. At the time of his arrest, Firefighter Snodgrass, an Assistant Fire Management Officer, was working as the incident commander overseeing fire operations and containment efforts during a prescribed burn on the Malheur National Forest in Grant County, Oregon. Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley arrested Firefighter Snodgrass during the burn operation after the fire unexpectedly jumped a roadway when wind picked up, causing the fire to burn several acres of grasslands on private property.

NFFE National President Randy Erwin released the following statement after the arrest of USFS Firefighter Snodgrass:

“It is unconscionable that a local sheriff would arrest a working wildland firefighter during an active fire operation. Not only did the sheriff exceed his authority in detaining Firefighter Snodgrass, in doing so, the sheriff put everyone and everything in danger by removing a working fire commander during a dangerous incident. Firefighter Snodgrass was arrested for simply doing his job.

“We applaud all of the wildland firefighters on the line that day who held their focus despite the Sheriff’s interference. Undeterred, they worked together to contain the blaze and finish the job. Our firefighters who conduct and lead prescribed burns, like Firefighter Snodgrass, are highly trained professionals. They know how to manage the most dangerous situations. Prescribed burns are essential to keeping communities across this country safe from wildfires. When dealing with unpredictable environmental conditions, it is always possible that a prescribed burn could spill over into an untargeted area. Normally when this happens, the government will address any damages to affected parties as appropriate. It is not normal for a local sheriff to arrest a working fire commander during an incident. In doing so, the sheriff may have violated federal law that makes it a felony to interfere with a federal employee during their official duties, and the sheriff may have opened the county to massive liability for a civil rights violation for unlawfully detaining and removing Firefighter Snodgrass.

“Firefighter Snodgrass has the full, unconditional support of your union, as does every federal wildland firefighter across this country. NFFE is calling on state and federal authorities to investigate the reckless actions of Sheriff McKinley to pursue any violation of civil and criminal law. This incident will not be swept under the rug. There must be consequences for this unprecedented abuse of power and incredibly dangerous disruption to the critical work of the Forest Service.

“We applaud the USDA and the USFS for expressing their full support of Firefighter Snodgrass in the performance of his official duties. NFFE will continue to follow this investigation and provide support to Firefighter Snodgrass to ensure that rogue sheriffs or any other person who threatens or impedes public servants answer for their actions.”

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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.

33 thoughts on “Union takes a position on the arrest of a firefighter during a prescribed fire”

  1. Good….damn time

    We’ll see how effective BOTH the union and leadership work TOGETHER to solve this.

    To leave a burn boss’ ass hangin in the wind for your “acreage quota” during times of less than ideal prescription….and everyone can remind me ” how in prescription” during a heightened fire season makes any goddamned sense.

    This better be a WO discussion w both “leadership” and NFFE in the Beltway at WO expense

  2. If it was SO dangerous out there and removing him put everyone at risk why were they burning in the first place? Sounds like a terrible time for a burn so close to prjvate land.

  3. The Union should know better than this:

    “Normally when this happens, the government will address any damages to affected parties as appropriate.”

    No. They won’t. There is no mechanism for the government to fix what they break. That’s a big problem. The government lights stuff on fire and the government is not authorized to compensate anyone for the damages.

    The Federal Tort Claims Act is a joke. It takes years to win a simple case for fire damage.

    There’s a simple solution. Authorize the agencies that break things to immediately make people whole, but for the fire.

    The reason the sheriffs are starting to arrest people is because there is no alternative for them to protect private property.

    Are we really outraged because the Sheriff arrested an AFMO who let a fire get away? What about our outrage when the Alaska T1 ICT lit a firing op in the teeth of 40 mph red flag winds and burned 54 magnificent homes near Jackson Hole?

    If we can’t figure out how to help the people we harm we can expect the local governments to respond the only way they can. Buy liability insurance, gang. You’re going to need it.

  4. If this entire situation is not dealt with we will lose all qualified burn bosses as we lost Type 3 ICs after Cramer.

  5. Burning private property is a no-no. I am a federal employee myself and I know what I can and cannot do. You initiate a burn, YOU are responsible for its damages.

  6. Exactly correct!!!!! As it stands I am already in the process of deleting RXB2 from my IQCS! Not about to get arrested or get cancer from a planned event so some goofy fuels program manager can get a gold star.

  7. When a fire moves from Federal property to private property, state statutes go into affect. Most states have “endangering by fire” or other laws, to protect private property. Burning has consequences.

  8. Inaction also has consequences Chief! We’re losing far more public and private land because of outdated fire policy. If you don’t have a calculated tolerance for risk you probably shouldn’t be doing the job. A 10acre spot that was caught in under an hour does not mean they were wrecklessy burning. Imagine what that fire would have done in July with winds on it.

  9. Frank, if you want credibility with this crowd, please be careful how you frame things.
    No burn boss wants to “let a fire get away”. We take on this risk because we know that it is needed, not because of bonuses or pressure from management.
    Prescribed fire is the highest risk activity in land management, and the folks who are willing to take on the leadership of it are GS-6 to 9s. When the average GS level in the federal government is GS-12, they are the workers who need to be supported and commended.
    I’m burn bossing tomorrow, and I’ve got to admit, I’ve woken up at 0400 thinking about how things could go wrong, even though I’m 99.84% sure they won’t.

  10. This whole mess just ensures that I have no interest in ever getting my firing boss finished. If you’re angry that a fire burned down your house and you didn’t do any defensible space or fuels work, that’s on you. If you’re angry that a fire burned native grasses, ponderosa, and lodgepole pine on or near your land, that’s on you as well, and you should look up the definition of the word serotinous.

    I don’t know why we keep trying to simplify messages for a public that refuses to accept the complexities of fire ecology.

    I’ve worked in Colorado and seen public efforts successfully stop prescribed fire in a fuel type of 90% dead lodgepole. The same exact area that burned in 2020. I’ve worked in the inland northwest and been threatened with violence by angry locals. I’ve been on an assignment in Paradise, CA before it burned down, and the conversation for us out-of-staters was how there was a laughably dangerous amount of fuel. You can still see old google street view images of the town….duff crawling out of peoples gutters and 20 foot tall ladder fuels over roofs and amongst the P pine.

    I don’t care if an apathetic public doesn’t understand what we’re doing. Ignorance is a choice. But I certainly don’t care enough about the ‘mission’ to put my financial and legal future on the line for a qual where some anti-government government official can arrest me for doing my job. No thanks.

  11. 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.” Cattle ranchers tend to get pissed when you burn their grassland.

  12. The local news (OPB) reported “The extraordinary arrest potentially reignites longstanding tensions between rural Oregon Sheriffs and the federal government. Some sheriffs in the state have long sided with ranchers and rural communities in challenging the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s rights to control national forests. Several sheriffs, including McKinley’s predecessor Glenn Palmer, have frequently espoused extreme, anti-government rhetoric and escalated conflicts.”

    “Well there’s your problem!”

  13. This. Bottom line. I also have wondered if the property owner is just looking to cash in. What fuels, how much acreage? Land owner says one thing, Fire says another. I’ll trust the IRF, not some anti-gov’ment type.

  14. What the f____ is an ICT?????? Also, 54 homes in Jackson? Yeh, I’m calling BS. What Type 3 crew did you work on?

  15. OK, clearly that was a specious BS answer. Got anything else or are you sticking with that?

  16. Frank, Frank, Frank, Shut the front door!!

    It seems everyone calls you out- every post you make. Are you in the United States or in Russia right now? Where do you get your accusations, do you make them up? When you call out ICT whatever’s that is insulting everyone that works on ICT groups. I doubt you have any experience working on such a high performing ICT T1 AK. The AK ICT team is one of the best in the country. Feel free to answer my question.

  17. Lester, and the rest, a little Google-ing and you’d learn that Frank is talking about the 2018 Roosevelt Fire. An article linked at the bottom here states:

    “A Missoula, Montana, law firm is representing the claimants, who say the Bridger-Teton should have aggressively fought the fire from its onset and that an undocumented burnout operation inadvertently caused the blowup that devastated the rural Hoback Ranches subdivision. “They decided to monitor the fire because it was their judgment that it was kind of scrolling around on rocks and wasn’t gonna be a big factor,” said Frank Carroll, a consultant working with the claimants.”

    Link: https://www.jhnewsandguide.com/news/cops_courts/2018-roosevelt-fire-sparks-multi-million-dollar-claims-from-homeowners-hunters/article_d56a68b0-5dc6-534f-a5e7-aaf213ea4c64.html

    P.S. Snarky patronizing and unflinching loyalties aside, no IMT is perfect, and no IMT is the same IMT on every assignment.

  18. My first comment is that I, like many of you, do not approve of Mr. Snodgrass being arrested, unless it was for his own safety in a contentious situation which doesn’t seem to be the case. It could be political in nature or it could be a statement that people have had enough of USFS policy. This is not just in eastern Oregon or northern Idaho, it is widespread in rural areas.
    This being the second article about this incident, my observation is that there are many frustrated employees and burn bosses commenting that have absolutely no empathy for private landowners who are also taxpayers which is most of us who fund your agency and make the work possible.
    I think prescribed, controlled burning is an important tool for some applications but should not be the primary tool in managing our national Forests. It is risky and expensive. Sustainable forest management including proper harvesting of our forest products in ecologically sound areas should be our primary focus with controlled burning supplementing that. A reasonable goal it seems.
    In my 28 years as ATGS, I have seen many frustrating examples of delayed initial attack where the fire eventually took off and became expensive project fires. I have seen burnouts and backfires that were successful but also many that were not or hindered further suppression due to smoke or new “resource considerations”.
    Face it folks, right now your agency policies (not the line folks) have become visible to the public and there is a growing opinion that the agency is failing. The public wants fires to be extinguished quickly and efficiently. They want clean air, their property protected, and their forests protected.
    Time for a shift in policy. There needs to be an large investment in air tankers and helicopters of all sizes so fires can be actioned quickly and held until ground resources can take safe action. Some fires will get away, that will still happen no doubt. It’s time to invest in supporting personnel with good wages and benefits for those who have been ignored. It’s time for a real commitment to aggressive initial attack with some exceptions for very large wilderness areas, especially late in the season. Get back to real forest management including harvest with planting and natural regeneration. Remember, the agency exists to take good care of the land for its citizens who in turn will fund you and your efforts.
    Waiting for the comments telling me this type of thinking is what got us here in the first place.

  19. As a Fire Warden and Protection Supervisor in Eastern Oregon I would say that there is definitely Oregon Revised Statues and Oregon Administrative Rules that would allow the issuance of a citation. The Sheriff would also have that Authority and responsibility to issue a citation as well.

    A law was broken…of course open to legal interpretation… fire was allowed to escape and it crossed a property line that seems to be fact. They did do the right thing and suppress the fire that was on PVT property and that in turn does give some flexibility on if enforce action is taken.

    Do I agree with what the Sherriff did, I would say that I do, do i think the arrest was a bit much.. yes.. but hey he felt it was the correct action to take. Let the legal process run its course.

    This all could have been possibly avoided by burning in better conditions that would reduce the chance for escape and having built a relationship with the PVT landowner based on accountability, trust and respect before, during and after the RX. Seems like there could have been the possibility to enter into a cross boundary fuels treatment but you have to put the effort into those relationships.

    The Forest Service does not have the authority or right to burn private property.

    The Forest Service is battling a perception issue and the on the ground reality that’s playing out daily in both wildfires, RX, and Forest management. The general perception that PVT landowners have of the FS is not a good one and that is supported by the reality on the ground. If you try to project that you are the best agency to manage the taxpayers land then the only way you are going to swing the perception needle is to change the reality at ground level.

    I have been involved in the sacrifice of plenty of PVT forestland acres throughout my 30 year career and have witnessed plenty of compromise and sacrifice by private landowners for the greater good. It took hard work by all parties involved for it to be considered successful.

    What doesn’t work is the authoritative nature and actions of federal employees within the FS and their view on PVT forestland. If you try to ram something down the throat of a PVT landowner the outcome will be almost every single time negative.

    So for those in the back I will say it again…The Forest Service does not have authority or management responsibility on PVT ground unless through a formal agreement. Build relationships and form strong partnerships with the PVT landowners, be accountable, be transparent and you can change the perception little by little in a positive direction as you have successes on the ground.

  20. Oh wow, that’s a gem. You’re a paid consultant for this obscene litigation and you don’t even have the basic facts down? That’s laughable.

    Good thing I have ALL my notes and 214’s from this fire, still tucked away in a nice folder, just waiting.

  21. “The reason the sheriffs are starting to arrest people is because there is no alternative for them to protect private property.”

    No, I think the reason is simply that this is a “Constitutional Sheriff” follower and believes they have superior jurisdiction over federal employees regardless of whether they are working on federal or private land in their county. It’s a continuation of the radicalization on the right wing of the political spectrum to ignore federal laws they don’t like.

    The Sheriff could’ve simply issued a citation for the level of offense he arrested the burn boss for if he thought an infraction had occurred. Instead he wanted to make a political statement.

  22. After reviewing the comments, I read the comments from folks who identified themselves. While there is probably much more to this story, I’m glad the union chose to represent Mr. Snodgrass. Regardless of your opinion, as a dedicated “union guy” I will always choose to initially support the employee. Mr Snodgrass deserve the union’s representation.

  23. The Fourth Amendment prohibits the taking of private property. When a burn is done, adequate suppression resources should be readily available, if the fire threatens private property.

  24. sir, as an ex Forest Service attorney, I can assure you that you are incorrect that the landowner cannot be compensated and that there is no mechanism for the government to fix what they break. the landowner can file a claim with the Forest Service. Forest Service attorneys will look at the claim and if it is determined that under the Federal Tort Claims Act which applies state law,it is determined that the Forest Service was negligent, the landowner will be compensated. The agency has 6 months to make this determination, not years.

  25. The sheriff is an active assistant fire chief in a rural volunteer fire department. He has many years experience fighting wildland fire and knows “reckless burning” when he sees it. It was still far too dry to be burning that day, which, by the way, was the second day that the burn got loose. There was a complainant, the rancher said he did want to press charges, so the Sheriff did his job.
    According to a USFS firefighter that was there that day, there WAS a fully qualified burn boss to take over when it happened, so the arrest was minmal additional risk to anyone.
    The contingency plan by the USFS was minimal and not effective until 20 acres (USFS estimate, 40 acres landowner estimate) had burned.
    The attitude of those USFS present that day was, to be generous, flippant in regard to the land owners property and rights.
    As someone said, “What would have happened if the landowner had had a ranch burn get loose ? He’s have gone to federal jail.”

  26. You incredibly specious and rather dissonant comment will not cure what is about to happen to OR. 10’s of thousands of wildland firefighters have been reading about what is happening there with great apprehension. NFS system lands are dependent on IROC and ICS to bring firefighters in from all over the country when a particular area is burning. The assignments are voluntary, people choose to go. There are MANY that will no longer take an assignment to OR, me included. We put up with enough without having to worry about being arrested for trying to do our jobs. Nope. There are always fires and we will go to places that are more rational. I, and many many others will decline (UTF) any order to OR. I bring aircraft and airpower with me as an Air Attack. There are many of the same persuasion in this small community. OR shot itself in both feet, a Pyrrhic victory or the highest order for the Sheriff.

  27. Outofthisworld your comment wreaks of a superiority complex and brings no value to the discussion in my opinion. That being said one could also form the same opinion of my comment to you…

    The Sherriff who is also a volunteer fire chief(Definitely not out of the ordinary in Rural areas) and the volunteer FD that he is a member of would not have jurisdiction for suppression in the location of the escaped RX. Protection responsibility most likely in that location in regards to private ground would be The Oregon Department of Forestry.

    No Need for a NWCG course for one to be taught the definition of reckless

    (of a person or their actions) without thinking or caring about the consequences of an action.

    ORS 164.335
    Reckless burning
    (1)A person commits the crime of reckless burning if the person recklessly damages property of another by fire or explosion.

    We should all let the legal process run its course and let the interpretation of reckless burning be determined by legal precedent and the courts.

  28. “Superiority complex”

    I’m stating the facts of the life of a volunteer…I’ve been on both sides during my career and to this day, run into volunteers who have to leave because of their job, volunteers who show up so shitfaced they can’t walk, volunteers who show up and do what needs to be done, volunteers who show up with no experience, volunteers who show up with little to no PPE…

    My comment was not meant to be taken as superiority over anything or anyone.

    My comment was to be taken at face value…being a volunteer chief does not make one an expert. “… many years experience fighting wildland fire and knows “reckless burning” when he sees it.”

    I’ll call BS

    What are the dudes qualifications? FF1 FF2?

    The problem with the statute that you quoted from ORS 164.335
    Pretty sure that Rick did not “recklessly” damage the property in question…

What do you think?