Forest Service Employee Arrested After Prescribed Fire in Oregon Burns Out of Control

by Amy Myers
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While conducting a prescribed burn in eastern Oregon, a leader of a Forest Service crew lost control of the flames and is now facing the backdraft of the accident.

The USFS is no stranger to prescribed burns. For many of our natural lands, regular burnings are necessary for the environment to survive. These controlled fires cut back on the underbrush that, when left untreated, can cause much more catastrophic flames in the future.

Unfortunately, in this case, the scheduled fire quickly escalated and spread to private land, and officials blamed the “fire boss.” They arrested the 39-year-old Forest Service crew leader, Rick Snodgrass, on charges of reckless burning and transported him to jail on Wednesday afternoon.

The accident occurred on the Starr 6 controlled burn which escaped the target destination of Malheur National Forest. According to Grant County Sheriff, Todd McKinley, the flames soon reached the neighboring Holliday Ranches, claiming 20 acres of the privately-owned land.

“Nothing like this has happened before,” explained Chris Adlam, a regional fire specialist with the Oregon State University Extension Fire Program, per KGW8.

McKinley reported that the crew lost control of the flames near milepost two on the Izee Highway, north of Seneca Oregon. Officials are still investigating the incident and the potential human-based and natural conditions that led to it.

“These cases rarely have a bright line and involve a number of variables to be considered,” said District Attorney Carpenter in a written statement. “However, to be clear, the employer and/or position of Snodgrass will not protect him if it is determined that he acted recklessly.”

Carpenter added that the fact that this was a Forest Service burn “may actually raise, rather than lower the standard” that they will hold Snodgrass.

Fire Specialist Fears Accident May Spark Fear For Fellow Forest Service Bosses

If there’s any positive news to this situation, Oregon residents can at least take comfort in the fact that there have only been nine fires that have escaped the Forest Service’s control within the past 20 years. Of those uncontrollable burns, only one has crossed into private land, according to a report by the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services.

When a fire does escape the crew’s control, the Forest Service scrutinizes the incident to prevent it from happening in the future. That said, Adlam fears that the investigation may affect the confidence of fellow fire bosses.

“It raises a lot of questions,” said Adlam. “I’m concerned that it will cause a chilling effect for burn bosses everywhere who are now going to have to add this to the list of concerns on a prescribed burn — which is already a complicated operation.”

The fire specialist believes that investigators should take into account the stressful and dangerous nature of the boss’s job.

“There’s always a chance that a prescribed fire will slop over from private land to public land or public land to private land,” explained Adlam. “I think that we need to find some leniency and cooperation and so we can all use this relatively safe and effective tool.”