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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Burn boss indicted by grand jury

The Blue Mountain Eagle in John Day, Oregon reports that Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley, arrested Ricky Snodgrass, a USFS employee and prescribed fire burn boss, on October 19, 2022, for reckless burning — while the fire he was supervising was still burning. It is the first time a Forest Service firefighter was arrested in the course of doing his job.

On the day of the burn, weather recorded at the EW3547 Seneca weather station at 2 p.m. was 73°F with 16 percent RH and mostly calm winds that occasionally gusted to 3 mph.

The planned burn, conducted by crews with the USFS and ODF and contract crews, escaped the prescription area, spotting across a road onto private property. Several acres on the adjacent ranch burned before the spot was contained. A conflict erupted with neighbors and Snodgrass called 9-1-1 to report aggressive behavior toward his crews. The sheriff arrived, met with Snodgrass, and then arrested him and drove him to the jail in handcuffs.

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 GuardianNBC NewsABC NewsReuters, and others. 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.

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

Sheriff McKinley eventually completed his investigation and presented the case to the office of Grant County D.A. Jim 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.

Arraignment is scheduled for March 4, 2024 at 1:00 p.m.

“It is anticipated that this case will proceed through the court system like any other class A misdemeanor,” said Carpenter. “While this case remains pending, the State will have no other comment on the matter.”

For more information you can email the District Attorney’s Office in John Day at gcdastaff@grantcounty-or.gov or call (541)575-0146.  Carpenter’s press release and the Ricky Snodgrass indictment are both posted on our DOCUMENTS page.

~ Thanks and a tip of the hardhat to Geoff.


 

Ricky Snodgrass indictment
Ricky Snodgrass indictment

 

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

Oregon IMTs and firefighters out for ice storm recovery

Western Oregon’s recent ice storm cleanup, after one of the worst winter storms in history, is now in the mop-up stage, and firefighters with the Oregon Department of Forestry have teamed up with the City of Springfield to help. For most of a week now, they’ve worked in the Thurston area of Springfield east of Eugene, clearing downed trees and sidewalks. A team of 14 started by clearing students’ paths to area schools.

“We noticed that right after the ice storm, they were using the streets to walk because they weren’t able to access the sidewalk,” ODF forester Kolten Vickers told Albert James with KEZI News in Eugene . “So we started around schools, and now we’re branching off into other parts of neighborhoods.”

Vickers has been with ODF for five years, but this is his first time cleaning up after a winter storm. “Primarily I assist with fires during the summers,” he said. “But with ODF having incident management teams — it’s all incidents. So storm recovery falls under that response.”

Local resident Patty Gori regularly walks the neighborhood with her dogs and was grateful to see the clearing work. “It was a mess,” she said. “But now, it’s amazing. They got so much cleaned up in the last couple of days, I just can’t even believe it.”

Who ya gonna call? Firefighters. Besides clearing streets and chainsaw duty, ODF sent an IMT to coordinate a unified response to the storm.

“You don’t see what’s going on behind the scenes,” said Joe Hessel, from a longtime firefighting family in eastern Oregon.  “You see firefighters digging a fireline or public works crews working on city streets. At some point, somebody’s trying to organize that chaotic potential into something that makes sense. That’s what we’re here helping the city do.” Hessel serves as a deputy incident commander for this post-storm incident, but he’s usually an incident commander with a state team. He said the storm response effort was started and led by Lane County and the City of Springfield, but on January 25 they transferred command over to the city, with the IMT from ODF still assisting.

“In large part, the city staff and departments are doing the work, just like when we were with Lane County,” Hessel said. “We’re helping at the highest level to coordinate and put a plan together to ensure that the right work is getting done at the right place at the right time.”

“We do train for incidents outside of wildfire,” he explained. “The ICS system we use on wildfires carries right across to pretty much any other incident. We’ve been to Florida and helped the State of Florida in hurricane response. We’re prepared in the event that there’s an earthquake or a tsunami here. Last year one of our teams, a short team like we have here, went to a county and helped out with a cyber attack and planning for how to manage and deal with that.”

“ODF is great, they do this type of work for a living in fire management, so they have a lot of experience in incident management,” said Ben Gibson, operations maintenance manager with the City of Springfield. “They’ve been a great resource to our emergency operations center staff in helping us move forward smoothly.”

ODF truck
Oregon Department of Forestry logo on a truck door.

Hessel said both his team and the local crews have learned a lot from each other, and he hopes the information shared between the groups can go a long way in responding to future events. “That transference of skills and knowledge to each other will benefit pretty much either entity,” he said. “And then we’ll actually develop some products we’ll leave behind — some written documents, like a debris removal plan that could be used next time, or a contact list with names on it.”

Eugene and Springfield and the surrounding area endured a record-breaking winter storm with snow and ice and rain and high winds. The storm caused widespread power outages and severely damaged at least 60 percent of the trees at the Mt. Pisgah Arboretum. The storm took out powerlines at the arboretum and necessitated a safety closure, according the a report by Oregon Public Broadcasting. Brad Van Appel, longtime director at Mt. Pisgah, said there was about an inch of ice on the trees and it was more than most of them could take.

“We have 209 acres, much of it full of trees,” he said. “I think nearly every tree took some damage.” For those wanting to help, the arboretum and its sister organization Friends of Buford Park are looking for volunteers, and they can sign up online.

Also of note, ODF is looking for a Wildland Fire Supervisor to manage the fire program down in Klamath Falls. This is a permanent benefited position. $4,918 – $7,244 monthly depending on experience. Recruitment closes January 31. 

Details: WILDLAND FIRE SUPERVISOR APPLICATION

Yet another utility lawsuit over 2020 fires

A group of four law firms in Oregon and California has sued the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB), Lane Electric, and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) for their roles in the  Holiday Farm Fire east of Eugene, Oregon — part of the Labor Day fire siege of 2020.

September 2020 Oregon fires

In the approximately 200-page lawsuit, attorneys claim the three utility companies neglected to prepare electrical operations and equipment before the fire burned across 173,400 acres and destroyed more than 700 structures. The Holiday Farm Fire burned on the Willamette National Forest, BLM lands, and private property within Oregon Department of Forestry protection units. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 238 victims who lost homes and property in the fire; the suit asks for $232 million.

As of September 10, 2020, the Holiday Farm Fire — named for a local tourist attraction called the Holiday Farm that included a wedding venue, RV resort, and year-round holiday Christmas gift shop — had burned over 144,600 acres about 14 miles up the McKenzie River from Eugene. Fire behavior and weather conditions were treacherous and kept firefighters from entering many areas, but they did protect some homes by burning out around them.

Jennifer Singh of KEZI in Eugene reported that the case was originally filed with Lane County Circuit Court against Lane Electric and EWEB — for neglecting to safeguard space around their powerlines from unstable trees and other hazards, but new records have revealed evidence that BPA also played a role in the disaster.

The lawsuit should come as no surprise to anyone — except maybe BPA — because local residents and fire officials were discussing the likelihood that the Holiday Farm Fire was ignited by powerlines while it was still in the initial attack phase.

Holiday Farm Fire
Holiday Farm Fire — Oregon Daily Emerald photo

“It wasn’t until the end of last year that we discovered new evidence that pointed to Bonneville Power Administration sparking a second fire,” said Alex Robertson, one of the four attorneys for the plaintiffs. He said that second fire merged with the Holiday Farm Fire. BPA provided power to EWEB and Lane Electric, and failed to power down its lines in a public safety shutoff. On Labor Day a danger tree fell onto a BPA line on Highway 126 and ignited another fire about 4 miles away.

This is the evidence that caused the law firms to bring BPA on as a co-defendant for the suit filed as a federal case — BPA is a federal agency, so unlike previous cases in county circuit court, this suit will be heard in federal court. The earlier case filed against Lane Electric and EWEB was dismissed to combine with the suit against the BPA.

[MORE DETAILS HERE]

Robertson said that on the same day the new lawsuit was filed, January 16, another suit was filed by 60 insurance companies seeking reimbursement of claims already paid to homeowners.

The Forest Service and Inciweb have wiped most of the records of the fire from their websites, but a BAER summary [PDF] of the Holiday Farm Fire is still available online.

Another $85 million on PacifiCorp’s liability tab

PacifiCorp will pay another $85 million to nine more victims of the 2020 Labor Day fires, after a jury in Multnomah County on Tuesday recorded the latest verdict in a series of lawsuits that means billions of dollars in liability costs for the Portland-based utility company, according to an AP report.

“PacifiCorp has settled and will continue to settle all reasonable claims for actual damages under Oregon law,” the utility said. The western Oregon fires were among the worst in the state’s history, killing nine people, burning 1.2 million acres, and destroying upward of 5,000 homes and other structures. Though the extreme fires were not unprecedented, the Labor Day fires burned more of the Oregon Cascades than had burned in the previous 36 years combined.

one of the exhibits at PacifiCorp trial
From one of the exhibits at trial establishing PacifiCorp’s liability

A jury in June found PacifiCorp liable for negligence in its failure to de-energize powerlines for its 600,000 customers — after the utility was warned by fire officials and emergency managers that its powerlines had started multiple fires and that there was an emergency need to cut power in at-risk areas because of the extreme fire danger.

Plaintiffs were awarded $71 million in that case.

PacifiCorp agreed last month to pay $299 million to settle a lawsuit by 463 plaintiffs who lost homes and other property in southern Oregon wildfires in September 2020. That jury awarded around $90 million to 17 homeowners. The award on Tuesday was the first of cases brought by plaintiffs in the broader class-action suit. More trials are set for February and April.

2020 Labor Day fires in western Oregon
Labor Day weekend fires in 2020 in western Oregon