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.