Pre-colonial frequency RxFire needed to save Western forests, study confirms

In 1993, District Manager John Koehler was in the midst of a shift in popular fire management practices. In his position with the Florida Forest Service (then the Division of Forestry) he’d noticed a new trend developing among the country’s wildfire managers, but he found there was little data to support their claims. So he decided to conduct a study to either verify or debunk the usefulness of prescribed burns.

Koehler wasn’t the first to gain interest in whether the historical practice of prescribed burning was as effective as people claimed. Fire Scientist Robert Martin, in his 1988 study, found that prescribed burning reduced the number of acres burned per wildfire, but said the practice’s effect on wildfire occurrence was “at best, speculative.” Forester James Kerr Brown, in his 1989 study, said a prescribed burning program would not have prevented the disastrous Yellowstone fires that had burned the year before.

1998 Yellowstone ~ NPS photo
1998 Yellowstone ~ NPS photo

Koehler was less than impressed by either study. He wanted to learn whether prescribed fires held quantifiable, tangible benefits – which neither study supplied. To compile hard data, Koehler used nine years’ worth of Florida Forest Service fire statistics to determine whether prescribed burns were affecting the frequency and size of wildfires at all. His study would go on to produce the hard data he was looking for, concluding that in every area where prescribed burns occurred, decreases were recorded in the total number of wildfires, the number of acres burned, and the average number of acres burned per wildfire.

“Prescribed burning will not eliminate wildfires, but this practice does reduce the threat posed from wildfires,” Koehler said.

At the end of his study, he recommended more research focused on quantifying benefits of prescribed burning as a prevention tool. Fast-forward 30 years, and Koehler would get his wish after a team of researchers on the other side of the country completed one of the most comprehensive examinations of prescribed burns’ effect on future wildfires.


The new research, “Low-intensity fires mitigate the risk of high-intensity wildfires in California’s forests,” was published in the journal Science by Biostatistician Xiao Wu from Columbia University and a team of Stanford researchers. In the study, the team analyzed 20 years of satellite data on fire activity across more than 62,000 miles of California forests to determine whether intentional low-intensity burns mitigate the consequences of the increasing frequency of severe wildfires.

Their conclusions were the same that Koehler had heard wildfire managers espousing decades before: prescribed
burns help prevent future wildfires.

In conifer forests, they found, areas that have recently burned at low intensity are 64 percent less likely to burn at high intensity in the following year relative to unburned synthetic control areas – and this protective effect against high-intensity fires persists for at least 6 years.

Prescribed burn ~ NPS photo
Prescribed burn ~ NPS photo

The study not only found prescribed burns widely successful in California, but also showed that they’re a necessary practice vital to conifer forests’ health, something Native American tradition has known for centuries.

The study does not shy away from referencing previous case studies that indicate frequent and low-intensity fires were the norm before the forceful removal of numerous Native American tribes from California. Previous research from Ecologist Alan Taylor shows that fire regime changes over the past 400 years likely resulted from socioecological changes rather than climate changes. Fire Scientist Scott Stephens found around 4.4 million acres of California had burned annually before 1800, in part helped by Native American cultural burning. Geographer Clarke Knight determined that indigenous burning practices promoted long-term forest stability in the forests of California’s Klamath Mountains for at least one millennium.

“The resilience of western North American forests depends critically on the presence of fire at intervals and at intensities that approximate presuppression and precolonial conditions that existed prior to the extirpation of Native Americans from ancestral territories in California,” Wu wrote.

RxFire training, Grand Canyon National Park ~ NPS photo
RxFire training, Grand Canyon National Park ~ NPS photo

The research led the study’s authors to recommend a continuation of the policy transition from fire suppression to restoration – through the usage of prescribed fire, cultural burning, and managed wildfire. The maximum benefits a prescribed fire program can yield, however, are dependent on whether the practice becomes a sustained tradition. If sustained, prescribed burning could have an ongoing protective effect on nearly 4,000 square miles of California’s forests.

Getting to that point would require many more resources. As pointed out in Fire Scientist Crystal Kolden’s 2018 research, management practices in the West have still failed to wholeheartedly adopt and increase prescribed burning despite calls from scientists and policy experts, including the 30-year-old call from Koehler.

The result is the continual compounding
of the ongoing fire deficit.

“Federal funding for prescribed fire and other fuel reduction activities has been drastically depleted over the past two decades as large wildfires force federal agencies to expend allocated funds on suppression rather than prevention,” said Kolden.

She also gave a well-deserved shoutout to fire managers in the Southeast U.S., crediting them with accomplishing double the number of prescribed burns compared with the entire rest of the U.S. between 1998 and 2018. “This may be one of many reasons the Southeastern states have experienced far fewer wildfire disasters relative to the Western U.S. in recent years,” Kolden said.

Even as the USFS and other federal agencies continue to tout prescribed burns in their national strategies, it won’t be until the agencies collectively create policy changes and budgetary allocations sufficient that prescribed burning is used at a scale in which it can create meaningful prevention. Without those meaningful changes, the wealth of prescribed burn research clearly shows that more catastrophic wildfire disasters are inevitable.

Surviving relatives sue Forest Service over flash flood deaths

Family members of three people who were killed last year in a flash flood that originated from the burn scar of the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history are suing the U.S. Forest Service. The wrongful death lawsuit, according to a PBS report, was filed earlier this month and alleges the USFS was negligent in managing the original prescribed burn and also failed to close roads and prevent access to areas at risk of flooding after the Hermit’s Peak – Calf Canyon Fire.

Calf Canyon -Hermits Peak Fire at Highway 434, May 10, 2022. Inciweb.

Three people from west Texas were vacationing at a family cabin in northern New Mexico in July of 2022 when seasonal monsoon storms hit the burn scar near Tecolote Creek. The resulting flash flood swept the three people to their deaths.

The lawsuit also contends that the USFS failed to warn the victims about the dangers of the wildfire and of potential flooding in the area. Neither the USFS nor the USDA has formally responded to the lawsuit, which states that the USDA did not provide a settlement offer or a denial of the claims that were initially filed in the case earlier this year.

The escaped fire burned more than 341,000 acres between early April and late June in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and was the largest of the record-breaking New Mexico fire season; it was in fact the largest of 2022 in the lower 48 states. It burned over 900 structures, including several hundred homes, and threatened more than 12,000 other structures in the area. A smoldering prescribed fire project rekindled and escaped control, merging with another prescribed burn that had also escaped. The combined fires burned for months.

The Las Dispensas prescribed fire, 1:07 p.m. MDT April 6, 2022. USFS photo.
The Las Dispensas prescribed fire, 1:07 p.m. MDT April 6, 2022.  USFS photo

Congress allotted nearly $4 billion to compensate victims, and FEMA has paid over $101 million so far. Many families, though, complain that the federal government is not acknowledging the extent of the damage or the emotional toll the fire has taken, according to a Denver7 report.

FEMA has paid out just 2 percent of the fund designated to help wildfire victims rebuild. Some can’t wait much longer, and Source NM reported last month that many survivors are in limbo as they await compensation for the fire.

Test fire for the Las Dispensas RxFire in early April of 2022.

The prescribed fire was originally planned to reduce the risk of wildfire. The first small spot fire occurred at 1:35 and was controlled. At 2:26 another quarter-acre spot fire was caught.

Radio communication with some of the personnel was discovered to be a problem. It was later found that Bravo Holding was using a separate “crew net” and was not monitoring the planned frequency.

Ignition stopped a couple of times as spot fires were suppressed, but by about 4 p.m. when the RH dropped to 10 percent there were at least a dozen spots. Shortly thereafter the burn boss requested contingency resources and all resources were pulled off the fire. At 4:25 a dispatcher reported that the contingency resources were actually in Taos, New Mexico, 70 miles away, at a training exercise.

About 4 hours after ignition began, a dispatcher told the agency administrator that the burn boss and FMO recommended it be declared a wildfire; the administrator made the wildfire declaration and the Las Dispensas burn officially became the Hermits Peak Fire.

An 80-page report (4.7Mb PDF) by the USFS later concluded that management of the prescribed fire generally followed the approved prescribed fire plan for most — but not all — of the parameters. The people on the ground thought they were within (or close to) the prescription limits, but fuel moistures were lower than they realized and the increased heavy fuel loading after fireline prep also contributed to increased risk of escape.

FROM THE REPORT:  “We ask them to make up ground on long-needed and far-behind proactive restoration work while barely allowing time to recover from a previously taxing wildland fire response and preparing to respond yet again. We ask them to restore fire process to ecosystems that have evolved to burn, but many of which are now primed for extreme fire behavior due to our own decisions to exclude or suppress fire in these areas.”

Northeast News: RxFire, highway closure, and drone warnings

April in New Jersey was dry and windy enough for numerous Red Flag Warnings this past week, but the state Forest Fire Service still pulled off a prescribed burn and contained a wildfire.

NJ Forest Fire Service firefighters Log Swamp Fire 20130416
New Jersey Forest Fire Service firefighters patrol the line on the Log Swamp Fire. Photo: NJ Forest Fire Service.

Another New Jersey fire, the Kanouse Fire, burned 1000 acres in northern New Jersey, leading to evacuations — of five homes and 100+ animals from the Echo Lake Stables. Embers were reported to have started fires a half mile across Echo Lake, with the fire staffed by multiple agencies.

Though fire danger has been high to very high statewide in recent days, fire restrictions have been lifted in two of the three statewide zones as today’s calmer winds reduced fire risk.

Today’s date also marks 60 years since New Jersey’s “Black Saturday” on April 20, 1963, when 30-50 mph winds, humidity in the low 20s and temperatures in the low 80s fanned the rapid spread of 31 major fires that burned 190,000 acres, destroyed or damaged 400 structures, and evacuated 2500 residents.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, after a week with the entire state in high fire danger, the southern and central zones are now in high fire danger and the rest of the state is classed as moderate.

This past weekend, according to Lehigh Valley Live, the 4000-acre Crystal Lake Fire east of Mountain Top led to the closure of 20 miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike between the Poconos and Wyoming Valley interchanges.

Also during the weekend, a drone-airspace intrusion on the Peter’s Mountain Fire in Dauphin County was reported by WGAL-TV.  The report reminded people that interfering with firefighting operations on public lands, per the Federal Aviation Administration, can carry a 12-month prison term, and drone pilots who interfere with wildfire suppression could also receive a fine of more than $37,000.

Union takes a position on the arrest of a firefighter during a prescribed fire

Starr 6 prescribed fire, Oct. 19, 2022
Firefighter at the Starr 6 prescribed fire, Oct. 19, 2022. Tony Chiotti – Blue Mountain Eagle.

On November 2, 2022 the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) issued the following statement about the federal employee who was arrested by the Grant County Oregon sheriff last month. At the time the firefighter was running the operation as the Burn Boss on the Starr 6 prescribed fire when it grew unexpectedly and spread onto about 20 acres of private land.

Today, the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE) strongly condemns the wrongful arrest of Rick Snodgrass, a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) wildland firefighter who was working as an active “burn boss” when taken into sheriff’s custody on October 19, 2022. At the time of his arrest, Firefighter Snodgrass, an Assistant Fire Management Officer, was working as the incident commander overseeing fire operations and containment efforts during a prescribed burn on the Malheur National Forest in Grant County, Oregon. Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley arrested Firefighter Snodgrass during the burn operation after the fire unexpectedly jumped a roadway when wind picked up, causing the fire to burn several acres of grasslands on private property.

NFFE National President Randy Erwin released the following statement after the arrest of USFS Firefighter Snodgrass:

“It is unconscionable that a local sheriff would arrest a working wildland firefighter during an active fire operation. Not only did the sheriff exceed his authority in detaining Firefighter Snodgrass, in doing so, the sheriff put everyone and everything in danger by removing a working fire commander during a dangerous incident. Firefighter Snodgrass was arrested for simply doing his job.

“We applaud all of the wildland firefighters on the line that day who held their focus despite the Sheriff’s interference. Undeterred, they worked together to contain the blaze and finish the job. Our firefighters who conduct and lead prescribed burns, like Firefighter Snodgrass, are highly trained professionals. They know how to manage the most dangerous situations. Prescribed burns are essential to keeping communities across this country safe from wildfires. When dealing with unpredictable environmental conditions, it is always possible that a prescribed burn could spill over into an untargeted area. Normally when this happens, the government will address any damages to affected parties as appropriate. It is not normal for a local sheriff to arrest a working fire commander during an incident. In doing so, the sheriff may have violated federal law that makes it a felony to interfere with a federal employee during their official duties, and the sheriff may have opened the county to massive liability for a civil rights violation for unlawfully detaining and removing Firefighter Snodgrass.

“Firefighter Snodgrass has the full, unconditional support of your union, as does every federal wildland firefighter across this country. NFFE is calling on state and federal authorities to investigate the reckless actions of Sheriff McKinley to pursue any violation of civil and criminal law. This incident will not be swept under the rug. There must be consequences for this unprecedented abuse of power and incredibly dangerous disruption to the critical work of the Forest Service.

“We applaud the USDA and the USFS for expressing their full support of Firefighter Snodgrass in the performance of his official duties. NFFE will continue to follow this investigation and provide support to Firefighter Snodgrass to ensure that rogue sheriffs or any other person who threatens or impedes public servants answer for their actions.”

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.

Forest Service Burn Boss arrested after prescribed fire escapes in Oregon

Malheur National Forest

Updated at 8 a.m. PDT Oct. 22, 2022

Late Friday afternoon Chief of the Forest Service Randy Moore sent an email to all Forest Service employees regarding the Wednesday October 19 arrest of a Burn Boss while conducting a prescribed fire that slopped over the Forest boundary, burning approximately 18 acres of private land.

“This week, there was an incident in the Pacific Northwest Region where a Forest Service Burn Boss was arrested while leading a prescribed fire that crossed over onto private lands,” the email read in part. “They were engaging in appropriate, coordinated, and vital prescribed fire work alongside state and other colleagues approved and supported by the Agency Administrator. In my opinion, this arrest was highly inappropriate under these circumstances, and I will not stand idly by without fully defending the Burn Boss and all employees carrying out their official duties as federal employees.  

This employee should not have been singled out, and we are working to address these unfortunate circumstances on their behalf,” Chief Moore continued. “This also prompted me to want to reach out to all of you and remind you of how important you are to the success of the Forest Service. You will always have my support and the same from your regional and local leadership. I will aggressively engage to ensure our important work across the country is allowed to move forward unhampered as you carry out duties in your official capacity.”

The arrest of the Forest Service Burn Boss while conducting a prescribed fire has been picked up by numerous news organizations, including Washington Post, Guardian, NBC News, ABC news, and Reuters.

To our knowledge this is the first time a federal government firefighter has been arrested at a fire for conducting their assigned duties.

Updated at 12:20 p.m. PDT Oct. 21, 2022

Friday morning the Regional Forester of the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Region, Glenn Casamassa, sent the following email message to all USFS employees in the Region. (We removed the email addresses)

From: Casamassa, Glenn -FS
Sent: Friday, October 21, 2022 11:07 AM
To: FS-pdl R6 ALL EMPS All Regional Emps
Subject: Support for Malheur Starr Prescribed Burn Boss and crew

To all Region 6 employees,

Many of you have probably seen the news and social media coverage about one of our employees arrested for leading a prescribed fire that slopped over onto private lands. There’s a lot of context and additional information about this incident that would be inappropriate to share publicly at this time, but none of that information revolves around the work conducted during the prescribed burn, the professionalism of our employees, partners, and contractors, or how the burn sloped over onto private land.

While I can’t go into specifics around the arrest of the burn boss, I want each of you to know that all times he, and the entire team that engaged on the Starr prescribed fire, had, and continues to have, our full support.

Communication and coordination between all levels of the Forest Service and the department were effectively in place within hours of this incident. This included local, regional, and national level leadership, Fire and Aviation Management leaders, legal counsel, and law enforcement – which reflects our commitment to this important work and our promise to share in the accountability for any and all outcomes.

I spoke with the Burn Boss last night and expressed my support for him and the actions he took in leading the prescribed burn.  In addition, I let him know it’s my expectation that the Forest Service will continue to support him throughout any legal actions.

No one person or crew is in this work on their own. I need you to know that I am with you now and into the future, whatever that future may look like.

I trust and respect our firefighters and employees who carry out the complex and dynamic mission of applying fire treatments to the landscape. They are well-trained, well-informed, and well-equipped for the mission.

Prescribed fire is critical to our responsibility to improve the health of our natural landscapes and the safety of our communities, and we are committed to continuing this work together. Thank you all for staying the course.

Updated 11:50 a.m. PDT Oct. 21, 2022

Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter identified the US Forest Service Fire Boss arrested as Rick Snodgrass after the Star 6 prescribed fire burned an unintended 18 to 20 acres of private land near the Malheur National Forest in Oregon.

“This case will be evaluated once the investigation is complete, and if appropriate, Snodgrass will formally be charged,” said Mr. Carpenter in a written statement. “These cases rarely have a bright line and involve a number of variables to be considered. However, to be clear, the employer and/or position of Snodgrass will not protect him if it is determined that he acted recklessly. That the USFS was engaging in a prescribed burn may actually raise, rather than lower the standard to which Snodgrass will be held.”

Updated 8 p.m. PDT Oct. 20, 2022

Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley told Wildfire Today that when the Malheur National Forest’s Star 6 prescribed fire escaped control and spread onto the privately owned Holliday Ranch the ranch employees “were actually out helping them try to catch the fire and prevent it from doing more damage”, but at the same time some of them were “highly upset.”

Sheriff McKinley said the US Forest Service Burn Boss who was arrested and charged with Reckless Burning did not have to post bail, but met the criteria for “conditional release.” The Sheriff said Forest Supervisor Craig Trulock was at the Sheriff’s Office.

We asked the Sheriff about the report that the arrest was made to de-escalate a tense situation going on with armed private landowners.

“They may have been armed,” he said, “but we are not aware of that. There were definitely some landowners that were highly upset.”

“Determining the rest, honestly, Bill, is getting to the bottom of why they were even burning to begin with and why they chose to burn at that time,” the Sheriff said when we asked about the next step. “You know, there’s a lot more to this. Everybody knew it was a bad burn, should not be happening. Even the fire staff out there, there are fire personnel that were on scene that are afraid to say much because, you know, their jobs. It was not the right time to burn and there may have even been means taken to get that burn done that were outside the scope. That’s kind of where it’s at. You know, it’s a really tenuous situation and more details will come out.”

“The Forest Service employee referenced in the recent reporting  was conducting an approved prescribed fire operation on the Malheur National Forest,” the Public Affairs Officer for the Forest, Mary Hamisevicz, wrote in a text message. “It would be inappropriate for us to provide further comment as this is a legal matter.”

The weather recorded at the EW3547 Seneca weather station at 2 p.m. on October 19 was 73 degrees, 16 percent relative humidity, and mostly calm winds that occasionally gusted to 3 mph.

Originally published at 12:19 p.m. PDT October 20, 2022

Map, location of Star 6 escaped prescribed fire
Map, location of Star 6 prescribed fire.

A US Forest Service employee serving as the Burn Boss on a prescribed fire was arrested Wednesday October 19 after the fire escaped and burned approximately 18 acres of private land.

The project was on the Malheur National Forest at mile post two on the Izee Highway between John Day and Seneca, Oregon.

Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley issued a statement Thursday saying the escaped fire burned lands belonging to the Holliday Ranches on the “hot afternoon of October 19, 2022.”

The statement read in part:

The Grant County Sheriff’s Office arrested a 39-year-old Forest Service employee for Reckless Burning, and transported him to the Grant County Jail. The employee was assigned as the fire’s “burn boss.”

The Sheriff’s office said they are working with the Forest Service to determine the events that led to the escaped fire.

The Star 6 prescribed fire was intended to burn 362 acres. The US Forest Service said on Twitter the escape was caught within an hour at 18 acres, but failed to mention that the Burn Boss was arrested. The Sheriff said it burned approximately 20 acres.

Phone calls to Forest Supervisor Craig Trulock and Blue Mountain District Ranger Sally Christenson were not immediately returned.

This is the first time to this author’s knowledge that a Federal Burn Boss has been arrested for an escaped prescribed fire.

After the 2001 Thirtymile Fire, a Crew Boss was charged with 11 felonies related to the entrapment and burnover deaths of four firefighters who were on his hand crew. He was facing the possibility of decades in prison, but the Assistant U. S. Attorney, perhaps realizing he did not have a winnable case, allowed him to plead guilty to two misdemeanors of making a false statement in an Administrative hearing. Seven years after the fire, he was sentenced to three months of incarceration in a work-release program and three years of probation.