SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The head of the U.S. Forest Service has denounced the arrest by an Oregon sheriff of a Forest Service employee after a planned burn in a national forest spread onto private land.
The criticism by Forest Service Chief Randy Moore was followed by a statement from Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter in which he defended the arrest on Oct. 19 of a U.S. Forest Service “burn boss” on allegations of reckless burning.
“I respect the sheriff’s discretion and decision to make an arrest in this case," Carpenter said Tuesday. Sheriff Todd McKinley occasionally briefs Carpenter on an investigation into the case, the prosecutor said, adding that it could last for weeks or even months.
Once it's completed, "a decision will be made as to whether a charge will be made or not,” Carpenter said.
Burn Boss Rick Snodgrass told the local Blue Mountain Eagle newspaper that his arrest by McKinley disrupted the chain of command while the Forest Service crew was conducting the prescribed burn in the Malheur National Forest. Snodgrass was taken to the county jail in Canyon City, where he was conditionally released.
“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 all of Bear Valley.”
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.
McKinley said the prescribed fire burned about 20 acres (8 hectares) of land belonging to the Holliday family before it was brought under control. But Chad Holliday estimated that almost 40 acres (16 hectares) of the family property was burned.
In a message, posted Monday to all the U.S. Forest Service’s more than 25,000 employees, Moore said he won’t “stand idly by without fully defending the Burn Boss and all employees carrying out their official duties as federal employees.”
“In my opinion, this arrest was highly inappropriate under these circumstances,” Moore said on the agency’s website.
The arrest underscored simmering tensions over management of federal lands in rural, conservative eastern Oregon.
In 2016, right-wing militants staged an armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in adjacent Harney County 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. They were freed early after being pardoned by then President Donald Trump.
Carpenter has warned that Snodgrass’ federal employment “will not protect him if it is determined that he acted recklessly,” adding it may raise the standard to which he will be held.