When U.S. Forest Service personnel carried out a planned burn in a national forest in a remote corner of eastern Oregon in October, it wound up burning fencing that a local family, the Hollidays, uses to corral cattle.
The crew returned six days later to restart the burn, but the flames spread onto the family’s ranch and resulted in the arrest of ‘burn boss’ Rick Snodgrass.
Repercussions of the incident have reached all the way to Washington, D.C., where Forest Service Chief Randy Moore denounced the arrest. However, the ranching family is applauding Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley’s actions.
“It was just negligence, starting a fire when it was so dry, right next to private property,” said Sue Holliday, matriarch of the family.
The incident has once again exposed tensions over land management in the West, where the federal government owns nearly half of all the land. In 2016, that tension resulted in the 41-day occupation by armed right-wing extremists of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in adjacent Harney County to protest the imprisonment of two ranchers, Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, who were convicted of arson for setting fires on federal land.
Tonna Holliday, Sue’s daughter, said whoever was responsible for burning up to 40 acres of their property should face justice. “How can the Hammonds be held accountable but the United States Forest Service not be held accountable when it’s the same thing?” she asked.
However, the Hammonds were convicted of felony arson for intentionally setting fires on federal land, including a fire set to allegedly cover up their slaughter of a herd of deer. Snodgrass is charged with reckless burning, a misdemeanor.
“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 said in a statement on the Forest Service website. “I will aggressively engage to ensure our important work across the country is allowed to move forward unhampered as you carry out duties in your official capacity.”