Burn boss trial moving from Grant County, Oregon to federal court

Lawyers representing Ricky Snodgrass, the burn boss who was arrested by the sheriff in Grant County, Oregon, are working to move the arresting-a-federal-employee case to U.S. District Court in Pendleton.

Snodgrass had a scheduled appearance on the first of April on the reckless burning charge that followed the local district attorney’s indictment of the burn boss during a prescribed fire on the Malheur National Forest in the fall of 2022.

The D.A. was served with a notice about moving the case to federal court, where charges will likely be immediately dropped.

Kirk Siegler, in his Morning Edition report on NPR, explained that Snodgrass’s arrest and the (much) later indictment were based on a “reckless” burning charge when a spot fire somehow ignited in dry grass across the road from a planned and approved and publicized prescribed fire — grass on the property of the Holliday Ranch, an adjacent landowner. Some of the landowner’s family members and/or friends had been driving up and down the road between the ranch and USFS property, harassing the firefighters, before Snodgrass finally called police to report the problems.

reckless burning in Oregon
[note: Though Siegler calls this a “reckless burn” charge, Ricky Snodgrass was charged with “reckless burning” by the sheriff.]

After Snodgrass phoned in the harassment and reckless driving by locals, the sheriff in John Day responded to the incident, found Snodgrass supervising the burn under way by federal and state and contract crews, and instead of citing the locals, arrested the burn boss.

Todd McKinleySheriff McKinley handcuffed him, arrested him for “reckless burning,” and drove him into town to the jail in John Day — where he was quickly released.

The burn boss arrest 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 GuardianNBC NewsABC NewsReuters, and others. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore quickly vowed he and the agency would “not stand idly by” after this first-ever arrest, and that he and others would defend USFS employees.

Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter
Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter


The county D.A. Jim Carpenter in October of 2022  indicted the burn boss on a charge of so-called reckless burning. 

Sheriff McKinley eventually completed his investigation and presented the case to Carpenter for review, and on February 2, 2024, the case was finally presented to a grand jury, which returned an indictment against Ricky Snodgrass for Reckless Burning, ORS 164.335, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and a  $6,250 fine.

In the State of Oregon, a person commits the crime of reckless burning if the person recklessly damages property of another by fire or explosion. Not long after Snodgrass’ arrest, Carpenter laid out what he said was the legal standard for determining whether a burn is reckless. “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,” he said.

The head of the NFFE union said the sheriff had interfered with a federal employee in the course of his duties, and one or more of the firefighters under direction of the burn boss pointed this out to Sheriff McKinley on that day. Snodgrass was directing a federal project and supervising crews — not just USFS but also ODF and contract fire crews — on a large prescribed burn, one of a series of planned and approved and publicized burns on the Malheur National Forest.

To no one’s surprise, Sheriff Todd McKinley has declined interview requests.

Grant County officials told NPR the arrest is being overblown. “One man doing his job kind of caused the other one to have to do his,” said Scott Myers, the judge and CEO for Grant County in John Day. He claims the weather conditions that day probably weren’t favorable for a burn — despite the alignment with the specs in the burn plan — and he says the fire somehow “damaged” private property — though neigher Myers nor anyone else has actually claimed this publicly or explained what they’re talking about.

Despite the adjacent landowners’ talk, the slopover across the road blackened not quite 20 acres and was contained inside of an hour — even though the project supervisor had been removed — not by the ranchers but by the federal and/or state and/or contract crews assigned by the USFS to the RxFire.


The eastern Oregon region has a long history of mistrust of and antagonism toward the federal government. Local residents for years before that ranted about how the UN and NATO had a plot under way to take over all federal lands in eastern Oregon — somehow in cahoots, they said, with the Chinese Communist Party.

Trump won the county’s 2020 election with 76 percent of the vote. It’s a sparsely populated place, with just over 7000 people scattered over about 4500 square miles — averaging fewer than two people per square mile.

Grant and Malheur countiesGrant County has a long history of tension with federal agencies and employees, despite the large number of locals employed by federal agencies in and around John Day. It’s the same kind of tension that stormed the National Capitol on January 06, 2021 — and back in 2016 took over and occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge about 100 miles south in neighboring Harney  County.

Not quite 30 years ago, county voters approved a symbolic measure “prohibiting the federal Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service from owning and managing federal lands within Grant County.”

Grant County later asked Congress to grant the county title to all federal lands — about 60 percent of the acreage in the county.

During the 41-day armed occupation in 2016 of the Malheur NWR, several militia members led by Ammon Bundy (who has since disappeared after being successfully sued for defamation by a hospital in Boise) were driving  to John Day to meet with supporters. They ran into a police roadblock, and  LaVoy Finicum was fatally shot by law enforcement.

Scott Myers, CEO -- Grant County Oregon
Scott Myers, CEO and Judge, Grant County

Grant County chief executive Scott Myers claims that  relations between the county and federal employees have since improved.

Trump "cartoon" in the Blue Mountain Eagle, John Day, Oregon
Trump “cartoon” in the Blue Mountain Eagle. Definitely NOT gun-totin’pickup-drivin’ crazy maniacs., nope.

 

 

Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to CARL for this story, but don’t bother looking for news updates from the paper in John Day, because their editor’s now “monetizing their content” behind a paywall. 

 

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22 thoughts on “Burn boss trial moving from Grant County, Oregon to federal court”

  1. Didn’t the government hammer the Hammond family for a fire that escaped onto federal land? Why is it ok when the shoe is on the other foot?

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    1. Bundy arsonists timeline:
      2016 story by Bill Gabbert

      Dwight & Steven Hammond

      The Hammonds’ fires did not “escape” onto federal land, Aaron. The Hammonds illegally set at least 7 fires, some or all on public land administered by the BLM. According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Hammonds’ motive for setting the fires was to protect their winter feed for cattle. 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.

      Why the Hammond grazing permit renewal was denied.

      There are numerous reasons it’s not the same thing, Aaron. Were you making a joke?

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  2. This article is misleading or I am missing something. My understanding is they can petition the court to move to federal court but I haven’t read anywhere that the court has to approve that request?

    I’m not a lawyer so looking for an educated response and not a lengthy debate.

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    1. You think the court will deny the request and somehow try to keep it in John Day?
      They’re not petitioning the circuit (local) court in John Day to move it. They served the D.A. there with a “Notice of Removal of State Criminal Prosecution to remove the case of State v. Ricky Lane Snodgrass, Case No. 24CR06021, from the Circuit Court of Grant County, Oregon, to the
      United States District Court” in Pendleton.

      https://www.justsecurity.org/87884/removal-of-criminal-cases-to-federal-court-two-dozen-faqs/

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    2. In the NOTICE OF REMOVAL filed on March 15 it says:

      Mr. Snodgrass, as directed by the Forest Service, oversaw a prescribed fire or burn that the Forest Service conducted on federal land in Grant County, Oregon. After the fire unexpectedly spread to private land because of an unpredictable wind event, the State charged him with reckless burning, a Class A misdemeanor under Oregon law. Because Mr. Snodgrass was acting in his official capacity as a federal official and intends to argue that he is immune from prosecution based on the Supremacy Clause, he is entitled to have his case heard in federal court. 28 U.S.C. § 1442(a)

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      1. Filed in U.S. District Court in Pendleton, and the Notice is QUITE clear that the sheriff and D.A. are not getting anywhere with this

        To prove the charge of reckless burning, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt:

        1. that the defendant performed an act that caused a fire or explosion so as to damage another person’s property;
        2. that the act presented such a substantial and unjustifiable risk of damaging the property that only a person demonstrating a gross deviation from a reasonable standard of care would perform it; and
        3. that the defendant was aware of the risk and chose to disregard it.

        It does not appear the State offered any evidence to the grand jury to prove that the spot fire resulted from any reckless act by Mr. Snodgrass.

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  3. I question the wisdom of the Forest Supervisor and the District Ranger who signed off on the burn. Knowing that this area is a hotspot of friction between the Forest and the locals, could they not have found another way to mitigate the hazard ?

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    1. ROYAL, I respect your background and experience, but all of the GO/NO-GO checkoffs were met, and the local/political interest was acknowledged at “high.” You think they should have “found another way to mitigate the hazard” … LIKE WHAT?

      The project area was 17,467 acres on the Malheur National Forest — with 14,300 acres slated for burning. The project area includes the Wymer Creek, Greary Creek, Camp Creek, and Jack Creek drainages, all sub-watersheds of the upper Silvies River. Topography is moderately dissected ridges with gentle topography averaging 20%. Control lines are primarily existing roads or constructed handlines where necessary. .

      Royal, what would you have suggested for “another way” to do it?

      [click images for larger versions]

      Starr complexity

      Starr description and unit sizes

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      1. What percentage of 14,000 acres is 20 acres?

        The Holliday ranch is about 12,000 acres and summer range includes about 40,000 acres of permitted Forest Service land. It’s not like their ranch was “recklessly” wiped out.

        Ricky 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.

        It’s not like the burn was underway with 3 guys and a driptorch.

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      2. FROM THE BURN PLAN: Much of the Starr Project area has been treated by some form of mechanical means. This includes but is not limited to pre-commercial thinning and commercial harvest. Some units have had slash piled and burned reducing surface and ladder fuels, while others that were commercially harvested have increased surface fuel loads. Surface fuel loading varies widely across the project area, but is still considered to be light at approximately 2-8 tons per acre. Mechanical treatment doesn’t affect duff layers over the total project area, so duff levels range from approximately 0.5 to 3 inches in depth, the exception being under larger ponderosa pine trees where bark flakes could exceed 12 inches in depth. When these duff mounds burn completely, under low moisture conditions, high stress can be placed on the tree.

        Although mechanical treatments have increased the canopy base height, areas exist where the canopy base height is low enough with existing surface fuel conditions to produce passive and active crown fire.

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  4. That region of Oregon and Idaho is very problematic with its heavily armed camps training to take on the U.S. government. Of course they don’t want federal employees anywhere near their lands. As to the FMO, I consider him a hero for the good guys who were performing their jobs to increase wildfire prevention for the community.

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  5. Sheriff and maybe even the landowners should be charged. The landowners for reckless driving and attempted battery on federal employees would do. Imagine being 18, fresh to the real world, just to find yourself dodging hill people while you try to make something of yourself. Pitiful.

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    1. Maybe prescribed burn bosses should start packing with them not just liability policies but also a detailed federal LEO to protect from both lawsuits AND local clowns.

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      1. Not sure that a Forest Service LEO could arrest anyone on a public road — is that a sheriff or state police authority? But I also don’t know if the sheriff could arrest a burn boss on FS land.

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    2. With locals bothering the firefighters, crews were unable to keep their eyes in the green looking for spot fires. A delayed response is probably what led to this. If Snodgrass doesn’t walk away from this with a million dollars for his troubles all of us federal firefighters should protest. It is the actions of the adjacent landowners that was reckless and if they aren’t charged then the Forest Service isn’t doing anything to protect their employees. Period.

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      1. Apparently there was also some inadmissible info brought up during the grand jury indictment time that the sheriff and D.A. may not want to come to light … how embarrassing. John Day and Canyon City really aren’t known as a hotbed of brain-dead; there are many many wonderful and intelligent people there.

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  6. I know, this is an April fool’s joke he tried making…..

    Grant County chief executive Scott Myers claims that relations between the county and federal employees have since improved.

    “We get labeled a lot to be a whole bunch of gun-totin’pickup-drivin’ crazy maniacs out here, and I don’t really think we are,” he says.

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  7. With the known history of that area I’d have recommended they are on their own for the next large fire and stayed out of the region.

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    1. There are more than a couple firefighters and IMT members now saying they’ll turn down assignments in eastern Oregon. “Wait, isn’t that where the sheriff will try to arrest you on the job?”

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    1. The landowners who were harassing federal employees doing their job were the ones who should’ve immediately been arrested onsite.

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What do you think?