A U.S. Forest Service employee was arrested by a county sheriff in rural eastern Oregon after a planned burn in a national forest spread onto private land. It’s the latest episode that underscores tensions simmering over management of federal lands in the state’s east.
A Forest Service spokesperson called the situation very uncommon but declined to comment further.
“Hearing about that arrest made me very concerned about what kind of impacts that might have on the amount of prescribed fire we can do in the future,” said Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang.
The arrested employee, Rick Snodgrass, supervised the planned burn and was conditionally released from jail. District Attorney Jim Carpenter warned that Snodgrass’ federal employment would not protect him if it is determined that he acted recklessly.
Chang does not see the reason for the sheriff’s office’s involvement.
“There’s a whole process by which that land owner can lodge a complaint and claim a certain amount of damages and be compensated for what has happened,” said Chang. “So with that in mind I don’t really see a lot of need for law enforcement officers to get involved with the prescribed fire.”
The burn happened just north of Seneca in the Malheur National Forest.
“Last night the Starr 6 burn had a spot fire on private land. It was caught within an hour at approximately 18 acres,” the Malheur National Forest posted on Facebook.
According to a press release by Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley, obtained by KGW, the burn “escaped USFS lands near mile post two on the Izee Highway north of Seneca, Oregon. It burned approximately 20 acres on private lands belonging to Holliday Ranches.”
The Malheur National Forest released a statement.
“A Forest Service employee referenced in recent reporting was conducting an approved prescribed fire operation on the Malheur National Forest. It would be inappropriate for us to provide further comment as this is a pending legal matter,” said Mary Hamisevicz, Malheur National Forest Public Affairs Officer.
Joe Stutler, Deschutes County Senior Advisor for Natural Resources and Wildland Fire, says Snodgrass has been a prescribed burn boss for many years. He called Snodgrass “proficient.”
Stutler says he’s concerned that this could cause some people to think twice about being burn bosses.
“Obviously the repercussions for people who are burn bosses if you have a situation where you have an escape and then you wind up getting arrested for that,” said Stutler. “So I’m certain that that’s going have other burn bosses saying, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not sure I want to do this anymore.’”
McKinley wrote that the sheriff’s office and the Forest Service were still determining what led to the fire’s escape.
“There are still a lot of people still to interview and I don’t want to tamper with that or muddy the waters,” McKinley reportedly told the Statesman Journal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.