The arrest that shocked the fire fighting world and threatens a vital practice, US
A fire chief is under investigation for a prescribed burn gone wrong and stirred up long-simmering tensions over wildfire risk. Hours before Rick Snodgrass was cuffed and loaded into a squad car, he’d called the sheriff himself. The United States Forest Service burn boss had requested the help of local law enforcement in Grant County, Oregon, reporting his crew was being harassed while conducting a controlled burn within the Malheur national forest. It was the second burn that crews had conducted in the area in two weeks, with flames intended to char about 300 acres. But that warm October afternoon, the treatment did not go according to plan.
Flames jumped their bounds, licking more than a dozen acres of private land beyond the planned perimeter. Wary of federal agencies and frustrated that some of their fences burned, the family that owned the property dialled 911. Soon after, Snodgrass was arrested for reckless burning, a Class A misdemeanour that carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and $6 250 fine.
The arrest of a fire chief over a burn gone wrong – an unprecedented event, according to people in the wildland firefighting system – has sent shockwaves through the field and has sparked fears that growing public pushback will hamper this essential work. Locals – including the sheriff who arrested Snodgrass – claim there were serious issues with the actions taken by the federal agency and they are calling for more accountability as fire dangers grow.
While parts of Oregon have a long history of distrust towards government agencies, concerns like these are not confined to the state. Across the American west, the eruption of long-simmering tensions between the authorities conducting prescribed burns and those opposed to them has only added to the increasing obstacles and urgency, posed by a warming world.
Prosecutors haven’t filed charges against Snodgrass yet, pending investigation. Even if they determine charges are unwarranted, experts are concerned the arrest is enough to have a chilling effect on a practice considered critical to mitigate the growing wildfire risk.
“It sends the wrong message,” said John Battles, a professor of forest ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, about the arrest, noting that it comes as scientists and officials are hoping to increase healthy burning and incentivize sluggish agencies to be more aggressive.
Prescribed fire has a lot of benefits, Battles added, “but it brings that element of risk, and we have to somehow learn to live with it and socialise it.”
When smoke from the prescribed burn filled the skies over Seneca, Oregon, with smoke on 19 October, Tonna Holliday was filled with anger.
Like all prescribed burns undertaken by the USFS, the fire had been planned for years, undergoing an elaborate environmental review and then layers of oversight. Plans had been evaluated up to the moment when flames touched the ground, with multiple officials required to sign off. But that hadn’t helped assuage Holliday and her family.
Holliday and her two siblings operate the multi-generational Windy Point Cattle Company. They were on the scene when the prescribed burn began, rushing to ensure that all their cattle that roam the lands were out of the burn area and tensions ran high throughout the day.
“The words that come out of my mouth can make any grown man think they need to go to church on Sunday,” Holliday conceded in an interview last week, when asked about reports of harassment allegedly called in by fire fighters and forest service officials that day.
Holliday claims she isn’t against controlled burns per se. But she and her family have long questioned whether the USFS is adequately addressing fire risks, arguing that fire fighters didn’t do enough to stop a 2015 fire that destroyed dozens of homes and barns in the area. “At that fire nobody was held accountable and they should have been,” Holliday said.
“We also think the government has way too much control, just like a lot of people think,” she added.
The sentiment is a common one in the region. The Holliday family’s property isn’t far from where a militia led by Ammon Bundy occupied areas in the Malheur national refuge in 2016, the culmination of a decades-long dispute about unpaid grazing fees and federal land policy. The altercation ended in a shootout with FBI officers that left one man dead and several arrests.
While the Hollidays insist they aren’t affiliated with “extremists” and that they always pay their grazing fees, there’s a palpable mistrust of the government in the community.
And this burn, she said, felt personal.
When she says embers jumped from the burn on to their ranch, causing a small spot fire, she thought of the trees her grandfather had watched grow and the earth where her father’s ashes were scattered, she said: “When you see flames comin’ and it is burning up your land, you tend to act in a way you didn’t know you could act.”
Sheriff Todd McKinley, who arrested Snodgrass, claimed that issues with the forest service actions go deeper than what’s already been told. He seconded the Hollidays’ concerns that conditions weren’t right to put flames on the ground safely.
“There is usually some deeper issues going on and those will be revealed eventually,” he said without providing details. McKinley added, citing his 34 years volunteer fire service, he understands the need for forest treatments.
“There are ways to do that to keep catastrophic wildfire from occurring and I have been dealing with that for years,” he said. “I think there’s a little more to how they go about that that needs to be dealt with.”
For more than a century, the USFS and other state and federal agencies have strived to keep fire out. Deprived of its natural burn cycle, large areas across the American west became dense and crowded with vegetation. Infernos have been born out of the disrupted cycles, with a devastating recipe of heat, drought and parched overgrown forests increasingly leading to megafires.
“Good fire”, controlled burns that cure and clear the lands, is one of the best tools to fight those infernos, experts say. But the shift to embracing the practice has been slow. Federal and state agencies that manage the forests are far behind while the scale and need continues to grow. Warming temperatures have affected the windows during which burns can be conducted and increased risks. Plagued by staff shortages, the under-resourced federal agencies have also struggled to retain burn bosses who have the expertise required to execute the burns.
Meanwhile, a small but vocal contingent of environmental activists have also pushed anti-treatment narratives online and challenged agencies in the courts, further hampering the efforts.
Two prescribed burns in New Mexico that roared through communities and conjoined to become the largest blaze in the state’s history this spring only fuelled public scepticism. In response, the forest service chief, Randy Moore, also issued a pause on prescribed burns for 90 days to assess protocols in a changing climate. But the burn ban also halted progress on plans years in the making. Now the agency is hoping to make big gains on burned acreage during the shoulder seasons when prescribed fires tend to be safer. The burn in Oregon was one of the first set rolled out with the new protocols, with more plans in the works through the winter as conditions allow.
But without public support, crews say they feel the crunch from both sides, feeling the pressure to perform under increasingly uncertain conditions and pushback that only exacerbates the personal risks they have to take.
USFS declined to provide an official statement to media on the arrest, but Moore has issued a public response directed toward staff shaken by the incident. Noting that Snodgrass was “engaging in appropriate, coordinated and vital prescribed fire work alongside state and other colleagues approved and supported by the agency administrator”, he called the arrest “highly inappropriate” and said he would not “stand idly by without fully defending the burn boss and all employees carrying out their official duties as federal employees”.
Emphasizing that prescribed fire is “a critical tool for reducing wildfire risk, protecting communities and improving the health and resiliency of the nation’s forest and grasslands”, Moore added that the work can’t be done alone. “We must, and will, remain committed to learning and sharing the risk and responsibility together, always.”
Despite the words of assurance, shock over the arrest has resonated. The burdens associated with the work are feeling heavier than ever, crews say, as pressure builds to achieve more while risks continue to mount. “When we have escapes there are consequences and it has impacted us all,” said a forest service official based in the Pacific north-west who requested anonymity for fear of retribution for speaking to the press.
“After the escape in New Mexico they shut down all prescribed fire,” the USFS official said. “We thought with this arrest, shit, that’s just another roadblock and they are going to shut us down again – that just keeps deferring that risk.”
The arrest, some officials fear, could also embolden other anti-treatment groups to get louder. “When we do have an escaped prescribed fire – which is very rare – then the whole world knows about it,” said Riva Duncan, a retired fire staff officer for the USFS, adding that social media has played a role in amplifying resistance to the work beyond local residents.
Even if charges aren’t filed against Snodgrass, the action could hit the already precarious recruiting efforts in the agency. “There are some people who are thinking, ‘Geez, I don’t know if I want to do this job now,’” the forest service official said.
McKinley, meanwhile, sees the arrest as a step toward stronger accountability. He also said it would serve to cool building tensions between local residents and the federal government similar to those that spilled over during the 2016 standoff.
“I was elected to serve the people and protect them from whomever, whether it be the government that’s burning their places up or from the person breaking into their house,” he said. “Now they feel like, they can’t just go burn my place up and not be held accountable.”
But, there’s more to the story, McKinley said, demurring on details until the investigation is concluded.
Regardless of what is revealed, John Battles, the forest ecology professor, says it will be key for agencies and experts to not only effectively communicate the benefits of burns but also the risks. “We accept some level of risk for a big benefit and we have to get that thinking into this space,” he said, noting that for things like surgeries with similar success rates the public has embraced small amounts of uncertainty.
“Well-run burns can still lead to escapes and we have to build that into our culture,” he said. “Because we can’t take it off the table – this is too beneficial and too efficient.”
Source: The Guardian