SALEM, Ore. -- A U.S. Forest Service employee in Oregon was arrested this week by a county sheriff after a planned burn in a national forest spread onto private land.
It was the latest episode that underscores simmering tensions over management of federal lands in rural, conservative eastern Oregon. That tension exploded into the 2016 takeover by armed right-wing extremists of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, 300 miles (480 kilometers) southeast of Portland. One of the extremist leaders was killed by law enforcement officers at a roadblock.
Rick Snodgrass, the U.S. Forest Service “burn boss,” was arrested Wednesday and transported to the Grant County Jail, where he was conditionally released, District Attorney Jim Carpenter said in a statement.
Carpenter warned that Snodgrass’ federal employment “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,” the prosecutor said.
Prescribed burns are set intentionally and under carefully controlled conditions to clear underbrush, pine needle beds and other surface fuels that make forests more prone to wildfires.
Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley said in a statement that the controlled burn escaped U.S. Forest Service lands on a hot day Wednesday and burned about 20 acres (8 hectares) of land belonging to Holiday Ranches.
McKinley's initial investigation led the sheriff to believe he had probable cause to arrest Snodgrass, who supervised the planned burn, for reckless burning, Carpenter said.
“This case will be evaluated once the investigation is complete, and if appropriate, Snodgrass will formally be charged," McKinley said.
Forest Service spokesperson Jon McMillan called the situation “very uncommon” but declined to comment further on the arrest because of the potential of legal proceedings.
Snodgrass was conducting an approved fire operation in the Malheur National Forest, McMillan said Friday.
“We’re waiting to see if he’s going to have to go to court on a criminal offense for reckless burning," McMillan said. "So that’s why we’re not commenting right now.”
The wildlife refuge takeover in adjacent Harney County was mounted by right-wing militants to protest the treatment of ranchers Steven Hammond and his father, Dwight, who were both convicted of arson for setting fire to federal range land and sent to prison for mandatory five-year sentences.
That led to the armed occupation of the refuge for 41 days. Occupier LaVoy Finicum was shot dead by Oregon State Police. They say he reached for a pistol at a roadblock along a snowy highway.
Former President Donald Trump pardoned the Hammonds in 2018, allowing them to be freed from federal prison.