Arrest of Forest Service employee sends shockwaves through firefighting community
A U.S. Forest Service employee was arrested after the prescribed fire he was managing torched an estimated 20 acres of private land in Oregon, authorities confirmed in late October.
When U.S. Forest Service personnel carried out a planned burn in a national forest in Oregon on Oct. 13, it wound up burning fencing that a local family uses to corral cattle, the Associated Press reports.
The incident resulted in the arrest of “burn boss” Rick Snodgrass, a Forest Service employee.
Repercussions of the singular incident in the remote corner of eastern Oregon have reached all the way to Washington, D.C., where Forest Service Chief Randy Moore denounced the arrest, according to the AP.
The practice of mechanical thinning and planned fires in overgrown forests is credited with saving homes, creating habitat for moose and other wildlife, and in reducing the intensity of potential wildfires.
But some efforts have gone terribly awry, including causing the largest fire in New Mexico’s history earlier this year. Several hundred homes were destroyed, livelihoods of the rural residents were lost and water supply systems were compromised.
The federal agency acknowledged in a review that it failed to consider the historic drought and unfavorable spring weather conditions as fire managers attempted to reduce flammable undergrowth in northern New Mexico.
Moore said that in 99.84% of cases, prescribed fires go as planned and are a valuable tool for reducing the threat of extreme fires by removing dead and down trees and other vegetation that serves as fuel in overgrown forests.
Earlier this year, the Forest Service suspended all of its prescribed fire activity to do a nationwide review of its approach to fire management specific to controlled burns. Officials with Superior National Forest were planning a pair of large prescribed burns in the WTIP listening area this year, one near the Sawbill Trail and another near Greenwood Lake in Cook County.
A long winter with an abundance of snow and plenty of rain in late April and early May had wildfire officials in northeastern Minnesota optimistic for a calm start to the season in terms of fire danger. One prescribed fire of about 750 acres was scheduled for an area near Sunfish Lake, not far from Greenwood Lake. The other prescribed burn scheduled for this spring was the Kawishiwi Lakes fire. It would have been an estimated 2,000 acres in size. Due to the moratorium, these burns did not take place.
Given the situation that unfolded in New Mexico earlier this year, coupled with the arrest of the Forest Service employee in Oregon, it appears the future of fire management on federal lands is entering a new phase. Top officials on Superior National Forest told WTIP Oct. 28 that all questions on this topic need to be directed to Washington D.C.
However, there are former firefighters who are willing to talk about this subject.
The Life with Fire podcast is hosted by journalist and former wildland firefighter Amanda Monthei.
The podcast features fire experts and other guests from around the country discussing wildfires, the history of wildfire in the United States, cultural burns, fire suppression methods and other related topics.
Monthei spoke with WTIP’s Joe Friedrichs about the arrest of a Forest Service employee who is tasked with fire management. Included in the discussion is what the arrest means in terms of a precedent for firefighters across the nation, including on Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. Audio below.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.