Sheriff STILL investigating arrest of burn boss

It’s been just over a year since the Grant County Sheriff in eastern Oregon kicked over a hornets’ nest and made national headlines by arresting and handcuffing a Forest Service burn boss for “reckless burning” while he was directing a planned and active prescribed fire. And the case is still under investigation.

“It is wrapping up,” Sheriff Todd McKinley recently told the Blue Mountain Eagle. He said he plans to forward the investigation to the district attorney “in the near future.”

On Oct. 19, 2022, Ricky Snodgrass was overseeing the Starr 6 Burn in Bear Valley, on the Malheur National Forest about 17 miles south of John Day and 7 miles north of Seneca, when embers blew over the Izee-Paulina Highway and scorched 15 or 20 acres of private land belonging to the family-owned Holliday Ranch.
Holliday Ranch in Grant County, Oregon
Red angus on the Holliday Ranch in Grant County, Oregon

Snodgrass, 39, was the USFS burn boss managing the 300-acre Rx fire — the second Malheur NF burn within about two weeks — and those on the fire included not only federal crews but also Grayback contract crews and Oregon Department of Forestry personnel.

Burn Boss arrest: Starr 6 RxFire
19. October 2022 — Burn Boss arrest: Starr 6 RxFire in Grant County, Oregon

Landowners called the sheriff to report the burn had started a spot fire and was “out of control.” With the burn underway and with long-running tensions escalating between the property owners and fire crews, Snodgrass also called the county sheriff — to help control aggressive traffic and to deal with harassment his crews had been subjected to. Much to Snodgrass’ surprise, McKinley arrested him on “suspicion of reckless burning” — and took him away in handcuffs while the fire was still burning.

Timothy hay on the eastern Oregon Holliday Ranch.
Timothy hay on the eastern Oregon Holliday Ranch.

Firefighters who remained on the job brought the private land slopover under control in about an hour; they also maintained control of the prescribed burn on national forest land.

Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley
Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley

Snodgrass was driven to the county jail, where he was officially booked and then quickly released.

The Starr 6 Burn very quickly hit the news and ignited controversy — far beyond Oregon and the wildland fire community. The story was picked up by news organizations  including the Washington Post, The Guardian, NBC News, ABC News, Reuters, and others.

It was one of the first prescribed fires initiated after new restrictions and guidelines were established in early 2022 — rules that followed a 90-day stop-work after New Mexico prescribed fires escaped — the Calf Canyon – Hermit’s Peak fire burned several hundred thousand acres and hundreds of structures early in 2022.

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore quickly vowed he would “not stand idly by” after this first-ever arrest, and that he and others would defend USFS employees. The head of the NFFE union said the sheriff interfered with a federal employee in the course of his duties.

Since his arrest a year ago, Ricky Snodgrass has been waiting to hear whether he might face criminal charges in Grant County. District Attorney Jim Carpenter will consider several possible options, depending on the evidence collected and how he assesses it.

Sheriff McKinley also may find out he’s been charged with a crime. Firefighters at the burn during the arrest warned the sheriff that if he detained the burn boss, who was in the middle of conducting a prescribed fire and acting in an official capacity in command of the personnel and their safety and also that of neighboring county residents, he could face charges of obstructing a federal employee during the performance of duties.

McKinley recently told the Blue Mountain Eagle that he doesn’t know whether charges might be filed against him. “I haven’t even been talked to,” he said.


Tony Chiotti, ace reporter with the Blue Mountain Eagle in John Day, wrote this in-depth report after the arrest, re-published on 10/26/22 by WildfireToday.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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18 thoughts on “Sheriff STILL investigating arrest of burn boss”

  1. Curious to as if the feds are waiting to see if the county goes fourth with indictment of the burn boss.

    Really unfortunate.
    I’m gonna lean towards politics on the Sheriffs behalf of his decisions.

    We have a county locally where the sheriff will side with local politics. Sad.

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    1. Good point, Carl. I expect you’re right about that. The sheriff still hasn’t sent the DA his report. 😄

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  2. While I understand where you’re coming from, McMillan, and you might actually BE that good, most of the fed agency PAOs I’ve met are approximately useless in a complex and sticky situation like this one. Particularly in Grant County or other similar environments. (The FS, after all, ships useless fire people who can’t easily be fired to either Siberia or Public Affairs.) There *ARE* some incident info officers (particularly with T1 teams) who would live up to your praise, but speaking from the F&AM side and the media side, you’re off base on this.

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  3. Public Information Officers, in place of willing or available public affairs personnel, should have “greased the skids” with local residents, especially the busy ones, before, during and after this operation. When in doubt order a wildfire experienced PIO or two. We’re relatively cheap compared to this ongoing PR and legal albatross. I like ranchers and farmers, but they don’t always like federal agencies. Only people can bridge this gap, and that’s NOT the job of Ops – it’s the PA or PIO arena. No messaging needed. Just inform. Interact. Be genuine, and they will abide. We can’t “stay away” this is America, or ‘Merica, same place.

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  4. The leg work for dealing with adjacent land owners (and wayward Sheriffs) through education and mitigation should happen before any burn plan is initiated. This particular land owner and this Sheriff presented an issue that was going to be a liability from the start.
    Often the non resource issues present the greatest potential to derail a burning operation. My advice — don’t ignore them, pay attention to stakeholders and have an agency lawyer in your back pocket.

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  5. Current direction (at least in R2) is that any fire on private land resulting from a prescribed fire is considered a wildfire. A full size-up is done, an incident number is generated, and action taken on the spot/slop is logged by dispatch. This is reported up to the agency administrator, forest supervisor, and the regional office. This happens regardless of the landowner’s opinion on it; even if they don’t care at all we will jump through the hoops.

    And yes, the folks who are working the spot/slop (not everyone on the burn) get hazard pay. However, the prescribed fire is not converted to a wildfire unless the specific criteria for a conversion outlined in the burn plan are met – usually a full shift after the fire leaves the planned boundaries is allowed to catch it. For a while they were encouraging us to have Wyden agreements in place with all adjacent landowners so that a spot/slop onto their property wouldn’t be considered a wildfire, but this was considered to be an inappropriate use of Wyden agreements, and the last update I heard was that they were trying to figure out a better solution at the Washington Office.

    For now, it adds stress and complication to a burn boss’s day if there is private land adjacent to a burn unit — nobody wants to do something that is immediately reported up to the regional office. So I’m betting it’ll swing folks to units that aren’t adjacent to private, even though there is a heavy push to target WUI acres near at-risk communities. Our district and forest staff are 100% supportive of us burning next to private and eventually having to deal with this, but it feels like a burn boss’ job just keeps getting harder, riskier, and more stressful, which isn’t sustainable.

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  6. Kelly,
    A Bivins Action is a Federal action against a person who violates the civil rights of another i.e. wrongful arrest (unjustified) or in effect kidnapping as in this case. It is brought in Federal Court by federal law enforcement.

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    1. Agree 100% Addison, and thanks for the note. Did you see in one of those news stories that the sheriff said when he got Ricky into his patrol rig he changed the handcuffs for him — from his back to his front — so he could ride more comfortably to the jail? [eyeroll

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    2. Actually, now that I look it up, it’s a suit against fed employees, and I’m not sure whether a county guy would be subject to it ???

      Bivens action

      A Bivens action generally refers to a lawsuit for damages when a federal officer who is acting in the color of federal authority allegedly violates the U.S. Constitution by federal officers acting.

      Burden of Proof:
      The plaintiff in a Bivens action must prove that a constitutionally protected right has been violated by the federal officers.

      Origin:
      The term “Bivens action” comes from Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), in which the Supreme Court held that a violation of one’s Fourth Amendment rights by federal officers can give rise to a federal cause of action for damages for unlawful searches and seizures.

      Section 1983:
      https://www.pagepate.com/experience/civil-litigation/section-1983-and-bivens-liability/
      MAYBE.

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  7. ADDISON, A “Bivens Action” should have been taken against the Sheriff ??

    … please explain what you are talking about with that. Thanks.

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  8. 0462, Catching a 20-30 acre spot w/in an hour or two sounds like they did a good job…..0462, you a qualified Burn Boss? I doubt it since you refer Rx burning as “playing with fire”.

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  9. @0462 — “a pretty large spot fire” ??
    What do you figure is “pretty large” here under the conditions? Quarter acre? 400 acres?

    What do you figure is “accountability” here? The FS should pay the Holliday Ranch people $30 an acre for the spot fire? $150? Maybe 20¢ an acre?

    And “playing with fire” ?? c’mon now, really, that sounds like a line from the Hammonds. ……

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  10. While being arrested during the burn sounds outrageous at first glance, his burn created a pretty large spot fire on private property. There should be accountability for the seriousness of playing with fire.
    Maybe do a good job and own it?

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  11. As a retired FS employee and after serving in fire research for twelve years, upon transferring to region 6 I restarted prescribed understory burning in the mid seventies. I have experienced escapes but stayed within the approved prescription. A few entered private land but the landowners understood as they had been previously told of the potential.
    The Sheriff was playing politics with an influential land owner. A “Bivens Action” should have been taken against the Sheriff immediately!
    The failure of the Forest Supervisor to support and protect the employee has sent a definite signal to the other employees that they should not take any risks as they won’t be supported or protected.
    This failure has affected the prescribed fire program over much of the nation, and this supervisor should be retrained.

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  12. Hi Kelly,
    Its tough to say without seeing the physical prescription, but typically there are specific parameters that define an RX being declared a wildfire. Examples I’ve seen in the past include language like “suppression efforts exceed 24 hours”, the fire exits the project boundary, or additional resources not listed under the contingency plan need to be ordered to add in suppression. While you could argue that the fire leaving FS administered lands could warrant a declaration, I’m guessing that based on the proximity to private that would have been accounted for in the prescription. That may also be why ODF was present, as private would be their protection. I would also argue that given the spot fire was caught in apprx. an hour with resources already on scene, unless their was something specific in the prescription stating otherwise, there was no need to declare the RX a wildfire. As long as the required documentation was in place, the RXB followed the filed prescription, and they weren’t negligent then charges filed against him should not hold up in a reasonable court of law.

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  13. A very slippery slope that creates nothing but discord between a Sheriffs Office and fire agencies. The downstream consequences are already being felt as qualified Burn Bosses and Trainees give up their credential to perform the crucial burning operations necessary to reduce 100+ years of fuel accumulation.

    Prescribed fire is always a risky operation where Mother Nature throws a curve ball in an otherwise well planned event, couple this with a Sheriff that does not understand fire (have you ever seen a fire person or USFS/BLM employee elected Sheriff?) and the public with little to no knowledge of RX fire and you have a high potential for lynch mob mentality. Prescribed fires have always had a history of escape to wildfire and this will continue to happen.

    Having recently worked in Oregon I truly learned that wildfire is not nearly as advanced as they like to claim and their governor touts. In the 1950 to 1970’s it was a showcase operation. But people change, priorities change and philosophies change and like most regions of the country it is time for a 2 minute drill on wildfire suppression, mitigation and fuels reduction!

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    1. HI BOB,
      While I mostly agree with the rest of your comment here (especially the part about a BLM or USFS employee never elected sheriff 😄), I will remind you that this was embers floating over the road to private ranch land, it was a spot fire, and as far as I know an “escaped” fire means the RxFire ran off and was out of control and was then declared a wildfire, which never happened on this incident. If anyone knows better about the facts on this incident, please let me know.

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  14. I am sure there was a SOP to follow before conducting the prescribed burn. If the Fire Boss followed the SOP then no charges should be filed. I’m betting a sheriff with a poor attitude. Also charges should be filed against the sheriff for his reckless actions.

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