Bill Gabbert’s roots in fire and route into fire journalism

by Chuck Bushey

Meriwether William “Bill” Gabbert II of Senatobia, Mississippi died peacefully on January 14, 2023 at age 75 from cancer.

Nobody that I know ever called him Meriwether. He shared that name with Meriwether Lewis, half of the renowned Lewis & Clark Expedition, and Meriwether is the name of the canyon mouth adjacent to Mann Gulch above the Gates of the Mountain Wilderness on Montana’s Missouri River.

Bill and his siblings grew up in the same small rural town south of Memphis where he was born in 1947. After high school he went on to Mississippi State University for Agriculture and Applied Science (commonly called Mississippi State University) in the central Mississippi community of Starkville. I can imagine that the change from Senatobia, population about 3200 persons, to the much larger community of Starkville (about 11,400 people at the time) and entering into studies at the university must have been a major eye-opening change for Bill.

After navigating university life, Bill graduated with his B.S. degree in Forestry. As we all do upon graduating, it was time for him to make decisions on which direction to head next with a budding career. Bill decided to join up with the U.S. Forest Service to further his forestry interests and education, so he headed West to California and soon added wildland fire to his forestry toolbox. In actuality he probably didn’t have much of a choice about entering into wildland fire; at that time during the 1970s all USFS employees were “firefighters” in some capacity. It was a requirement that everyone understood; this was an organization that had been born into fire. Bill obviously took quickly to the challenge, joining up with his first fire crew, the El Cariso Hotshots, in California. This crew was one of the very first hotshot crews, established just after World War II on the Trabuco District of the Cleveland National Forest.

Bill truly enjoyed his seasons with the hotshots and he frequently mentioned in later years his memories from these days. Those memories weren’t all fun – they included the fatalities the crew suffered during the 1959 Decker Fire and the 1966 Loop Fire – the latter was still a fresh and sore memory when Bill joined the crew.

Fire crews of all types are wonderful places to develop lifelong friendships as people move through the fire seasons. This was also a time during which Bill quickly learned the ins and outs of the structure and politics within the wildland fire community, knowledge that would serve him well later in life. He ended up with 20 years of service in the U.S. Forest Service, and then transferred to the National Park Service (NPS) for another 13 years. He eventually retired as the Fire Management Officer for the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota; he was responsible for fire management on seven National Parks in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska. But he wasn’t even close to being finished with his fire career — he was just changing direction.

It was while Bill was with the NPS that I first got to know him. Bill was the Planning Section Chief on Rick Gale’s Type 1 Team based out of West Yellowstone, Montana during the 1988 Yellowstone Campaign. Our paths crossed whenever I would visit the fire camp there where I had established a USFS Northern Region (R1) satellite “Fire Behavior Service Center.” Yellowstone for that fire season was part of the R1 fire suppression responsibilities – what we all thought would be a “once-in-a-career” fire season.

Bill was obviously a very detail-oriented individual, a necessary and valued trait in that key position.

He and I met up again when he joined the IAWF as a new Board Member in 2004. He remained in that position for a year before assuming responsibilities as the IAWF’s brand new Executive Director (ED). Bill was a firm believer in the mission of IAWF– to promote communication within the global wildland fire community. He was the ideal detail-focused person to take on the director role, quickly organizing all of the disparate directions the association was growing into. Bill made it clear from the beginning that the ED role was not going to be a long-term job for him, and after a year under my term as IAWF President in 2008 he submitted his resignation.

At this time social media and blogging for many of us were still relatively new internet experiences. Bill had the idea of using these newish technologies in communication to further his ideas (and ours) regarding wildland fire communications. He quickly had Wildfire Today up and running – an online news site of wildland fire – with news stories spanning the globe but definitely U.S.-centric. His news updates and features and images and opinion pieces spread, and in 2012 he spun off a companion website which he called Fire Aviation, because this was a topic in wildland fire news that was growing in breadth and importance.

Bill Gabbert visiting Oaxaca and helping out with hatchling sea turtles

From the beginning these sites were a labor of love for Bill Gabbert, and a few of his passions quickly came to the forefront in his journalism, including what he called “students of fire.” He also focused on smoke impacts on firefighter health, political considerations of the jobs in fire, and perhaps most important, firefighter safety. He developed a wide-ranging global audience relatively quickly, and now and then he’d add on other expert authors and editors to round out and support both sites. He befriended and kept up with fire photographers and writers and editors — and agency leaders — not only in our relatively close wildland fire community, but internationally. He also made many friends in the fire-interested peripheral “public” – the tens of thousands out there who are interested in and connected with fire, such as family members, media, researchers, international fire personnel, and the large group of people who are just curious about the topic and how it influences our lives.

Bill Gabbert wrote on these topics almost daily, in a style that was easily understandable for readers who commonly get lost in or don’t care to digest the typical U.S. bureaucratic fire news.

Bill knew where to go and who to talk with to find the details he wanted, the core of the issue no matter the issue – he understood what was being said and could interpret or translate (without pulling any punches) for his readers. He had no qualms about writing on controversial fire topics, such as when Donald Trump and other politicians wanted to launch 4th of July fireworks from the heads of the Presidential sculptures at Mount Rushmore. This was just one of the Parks that had been Bill’s responsibility, and it’s a location with loads of highly flammable vegetation, at risk for trash and debris from fireworks with a history of both.

Bill Gabbert and the poster for ONLY THE BRAVE.

I wouldn’t call these efforts “work” for Bill. He loved doing it and being busy and involved “in the thick” of the wildland fire business, long after his official career retirement. These pursuits and activities of his also afforded him the opportunity to indulge in some of his other passions – including photography, motorcycle riding, and meeting up now and then with fire friends, which occasionally included a dark beer or two. His knowledge and networking skills also opened doors for him as a “retired” fire guy to occasionally work on short teams for hurricanes and other disaster response assignments, as well as traveling to international wildland fire events.

A few years after he had his sites up and running he and I had a discussion about the future of the successful work he had accomplished. It was a light conversation on succession, a topic that all organizations must have. I thought Wildfire Today would eventually be an excellent addition to the collection of communication organs that IAWF had developed. Bill had all sorts of new ideas he wanted to try out with the site, so he wasn’t at that point yet really interested, and truthfully IAWF wasn’t really ready yet either.

But the idea stuck in the back of our minds over the years. When Bill learned last year that he was terminally ill, he and IAWF began some talks about how a merger might be managed. I’m pleased to say Bill was happy that the IAWF Board agreed to take on the responsibility of moving Wildfire Today and Fire Aviation into the future — and it is an honor for IAWF to serve in this role. I’m sure he will be whispering in our ears as we advance the work he began and passionately served, as wildland fire news and communications become more vital around the world.

Bill Gabbert’s introduction to firefighting – and motorcycles

by Wade Ward

I first met Bill Gabbert in a forestry economics class in 1968 at Mississippi State where we were both forestry majors. The professor of the class coordinated summer jobs with the students and the Forest Service. The previous summer I had taken one of those jobs: a hotshot position with the Chilao Hotshots in southern California. I told Bill about the experience and he decided he wanted to go the next summer. 

We went to see the professor who advised us, but he said he currently had only fire tower lookout positions and some timber stand improvement positions. Bill and I took the timber stand improvement positions, and we ended up in northern California at the Log Springs Ranger Station on the Mendocino National Forest, where we spent the summer running chainsaws and thinning trees. Twice our crew was sent to fires, where I assume someone thought chainsaws were needed. Both times we were not put on the fireline. Bill was disappointed. 

Haight & Ashbury
Wade Ward (left) and Bill Gabbert (right) on an early trip to California.

We returned to Mississippi State and rented an off-campus duplex where we lived the following year. I graduated and was immediately drafted into the Army – as I won the 1969 draft lottery. Bill dropped out of school lacking only a one-hour credit to graduate; he returned to California as a member of an engine crew in southern California, where he could actually fight fires. He did not have to worry about the draft as he’d got a high number. He also eventually took another course and received his degree.

When I finished my Army stint I traveled by motorcycle to Lake Elsinore, California to visit with Bill. He was in love with his job, and he stayed with the Forest Service until transitioning to the Department of the Interior. I never visited him while he was in Indiana, but did so several times while he was in Hot Springs, South Dakota. I rode my motorcycle out there.

On one trip we made Bill decided to buy a bike, and he did that immediately. He and I made numerous bike trips together through the years, and I think perhaps the only thing he liked better than the bike trips was his career and his associates in the wildfire community. So it’s quite fitting that his ashes will be spread in National Parks … Paul Mims and I, along with another friend, will be taking some of Bill Gabbert’s ashes by bike to Rocky Mountain and Wind Cave National Parks. Family members and other friends will help spread his ashes in Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

Bill Gabbert (center) with Paul Mims (left) and Wade Ward (right) on one of their bike trips. Bill completed an Iron Butt Association ride – to qualify you need to ride 100 national parks within a year.
Bill Gabbert (center) with Paul Mims (left) and Wade Ward (right) on one of their bike trips. Bill completed an Iron Butt Association ride – to qualify you need to ride 100 national parks within a year.

Mexico and U.S. working together on wildfire

This year the U.S. and Mexico celebrated their 200th year of diplomatic relations, and for almost 25 years now the two countries have worked together in information-sharing and wildfire management. The U.S. Forest Service and the National Forest Commission of Mexico (Comisión Nacional Forestal, or CONAFOR) work with similar wildland fire challenges and a shared approach in the Incident Command System.

CONAFORThis collaboration has its roots back in 1998, when Mexico suffered through its worst fire season on record and was mounting a massive response to try to contain environmental damage and community threat. According to a recent feature story by the Forest Service’s International Programs, smoke from the 1998 Mexico fires caused serious air quality deterioration across hundreds of miles from Veracruz north to the Gulf States along the U.S. border.

The USFS sent literally tons of equipment, personnel, and other resources to Mexico, initiating what’s become a longstanding knowledge-sharing exchange. U.S. firefighters began then to regularly travel to Mexico to teach ICS principles and operations and to share resources, and Mexican firefighters started traveling here to help fight fires and add skills alongside U.S. firefighters.

Eduardo Cruz with USFS fire people
Eduardo Cruz with USFS Region 5 fire people
photo courtesy CONAFOR

Eduardo Cruz traveled from Mexico to the Sequoia National Forest soon after the 1998 fires. He worked on a helitack crew in California and launched longtime international friendships; Cruz is now the fire management director of CONAFOR. During 2020’s brutal R5 season, he brought five crews of Mexican firefighters to California to work on fires — the first time that Mexico had sent an entire delegation of firefighters to support U.S. efforts.

CNN reported back in September 2020 that the Mexican crews brought to California by Eduardo Cruz worked on the Sequoia Complex, which at the time had burned more than 144,000 acres and was just 35 percent contained. “Fires do not have borders, fires do not have different languages and cultures,” Cruz told CNN. “In the end we all speak the same language when it comes to fighting fire.”

The Forest Service has a 2020 photo album online [HERE].

An archived story from WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER Magazine about the 1998 fires in Mexico is online [HERE]. (NOTE that it’s on the website and most of the old links on that page are no longer functional.)

Department of Defense joins NWCG board

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) has added the DoD as a primary member of its executive board.

“A key function of NWCG is the establishment of standards for the wildland fire community,” said Shane McDonald, NWCG Executive Board Chair. “With the addition of DoD to the Executive Board, they will now be a part of the process to help create the common operating framework for wildland fire resources.”

Across its 27 million acres of land used for training and testing, DoD manages about a million acres for wildland fire, according to a press release from the Homeland Security news. Including the DoD on the NWCG board acknowledges the cross-jurisdictional nature of wildfire and will contribute to the interagency approach of the federal agencies in charge of fire management.

NWCG provides national leadership to enable coordinated wildland fire operations among federal, state, local, tribal and territorial partners. Other primary members of NWCG include the Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Association of State Foresters, U.S. Fire Administration, Intertribal Timber Council, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Associate members include the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire and the National Weather Service. The NWCG priorities include training, operations standards, qualifications, IT requirements, research, policy, and safety. More info is available on the NWCG website.

NWCG agencies

New study report says states do not adequately budget for wildfire

Posted on Categories WildfireTags ,

Increased spending on wildland fire suppression risks states’ fiscal stability, according to a recent report from The Pew Charitable Trusts. Over the last ten years, the five major federal fire agencies within the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture have nearly doubled combined spending on wildland fire.

State governments, particularly those in the West, operate under differing budgetary constraints and organizational approaches to wildfire management, according to the report, but unlike the federal agencies, states are required to balance spending and revenue every budget cycle. After their extensive review of existing research and available data, the Pew researchers completed 18 semi-structured interviews between December 2021 and July 2022 with wildfire and budgeting experts in six states — Alaska, California, Florida, Nevada, Texas, and Washington. They also interviewed key fire officials with the DOI, the USFS and FEMA, and the National Association of State Foresters — which has information on all states’ wildfire management online.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that the Pew study looked at how states budget for wildfire costs, the challenges with those budgets, and what might be done for improvement. Each of the analyzed states primarily uses general fund appropriations to pay for wildfire costs upfront; revenue for the general fund comes from state taxes and fees and is used for general state operations.

“To the extent that more expensive and unpredictable wildfires are being pulled from that same pool of money, it’s a problem for state fiscal stability moving forward,” Colin Foard with the Pew Trusts told OPB. “As fires have grown, so has government spending on the costs associated with them.”

The report and other related studies are available online from

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.