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Forest Service 'burn boss' arrested after prescribed burn escapes in Eastern Oregon

A Forest Service spokesperson said the federal employee was conducting an approved prescribed fire operation. The fire spread onto private land.
Credit: AP
FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2020, file photo, firefighters light a controlled burn along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to help contain the Dolan Fire near Big Sur, Calif. (AP Photo/Nic Coury, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. — The leader of a U.S. Forest Service crew conducting a prescribed burn in Eastern Oregon was arrested on charges of reckless burning after the fire spread onto private land.

Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley said the 39-year-old burn boss was taken into custody and transported to jail Wednesday evening. 

The incident occurred on the Starr 6 controlled burn, which escaped Forest Service lands in the Malheur National Forest. The fire burned approximately 20 acres on private land belonging to the Holliday Ranches, according to Sherriff McKinley.

The Forest Service said the fire was contained within an hour, according to a social media post.

Prior to Wednesday’s incident, the Forest Service issued a press release explaining that conditions were suitable for the prescribed burn — including temperature, relative humidity and fuel moisture in the area.

Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter identified the USFS fire boss arrested as Rick Snodgrass. 

"This case will be evaluated once the investigation is complete, and if appropriate, Snodgrass will formally be charged," said District Attorney Carpenter in 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."

In response to the arrest, a Forest Service spokesperson said Thursday the employee was conducting an approved prescribed fire operation. The agency declined to comment further on the arrest because of the pending legal matter.

“Nothing like this has happened before,” explained Chris Adlam, regional fire specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Fire Program.

“It raises a lot of questions,” said Adlam. “I’m concerned that it will cause a chilling effect for burn bosses everywhere who are now going to have to add this to the list of concerns on a prescribed burn — which is already a complicated operation.”

A prescribed fire, also referred to as a controlled burn, is a fire set intentionally by the Forest Service to help with forest management, reduce hazardous fuels and lower the risk of wildfires.

In Oregon, there have been nine reports of prescribed fires escaping federal land over the past 20 years and only one of those fires crossed into private land, according to a July 2022 report produced for the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services.

When incidents do occur, the government entity typically reviews what went wrong and how to prevent escape in the future, the report suggests.

“There’s always a chance that a prescribed fire will slop over from private land to public land or public land to private land,” explained Adlam. “I think that we need to find some leniency and cooperation and so we can all use this relatively safe and effective tool.”

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