Prescribed Burns Are Encouraged. Why Was a Federal Employee Arrested for One?

Oct 28, 2022 · 55 comments
Equilibrium (Los Angeles)
The sheriff is doing what Trumpers and conspiracy theorists want. The same people upset about the fire and the damage, and I do empathize with that, will also scream at the top of their lungs when there is a firestorm, and they believe there are not enough resources on scene. There may not be enough available because of the firestorms we must battle on multiple fronts. Will these people agree to the tax policy required to fund more air tankers? More boots on the ground for the controlled burns? More equipment and training? More managed clearing? What kills me is all of this madness of course emanates from Trump at the moment, but also the incredible boondoggle of 'states rights'. These states rights crusaders really want total autonomy and the ability to tell the federal government to get bent at whim and will. And they want this power and control by any means necessary.
Wilson Woods (NY)
About time someone did something about "reckless" government! Hey, we got a weather forecaster up here who predicted a tornado's possible track, and it actually went differently, (wrecking the someone's orchard!) If that's not reckless forecasting, what is it? Better be accurate or go to jail!
John Powers (Seattle)
Legalize and reinvigorated logging. Get some clear cuts in as firebreaks. Reverse 30 years of protection of various little animals like the spotted owl. The loggers clean up their operations as they have an interest in coming back. The feds can choose the highest fire risk areas to open up to contract loggers rather than burning them and turning them into smoke and raging wildfires.
JETIII (Portland)
I have been studying these conflicts my entire career. There is a fundamental disconnect between readers at a distance and people on the ground in federal land management. Most of the comments here echo the surprise and anger of federal officials, all articulating some version of "how dare they!" For ranchers on the ground, the tensions start with the federal rhetoric of "collaboration," which Peter Walker traced unevenly in "Sagebrush Collaboration." When federal officials talk about collaboration, what they mean is they listen to locals and then make up their own minds. Ranchers and loggers regard the term in more Orwellian terms, a pleasant but empty concept because they do not have equal say. They also understand more clearly than readers that burns regularly go bad, not only this year in New Mexico and Oregon but in 2000 with the Cerro Grande Fire that nearly destroyed Los Alamos, and countless smaller incidents. Moreover, locals understand that they pay the price when damage follows. Thus the anger directed by readers and federal administrators at ranchers demanding "accountability" is telling. The point is that federal land management is broken, its vaunted expertise spent through its own failures. The whole system needs fundamental reworking. Readers have no sense of the asymmetries of power and costs in these events; if they did, there would be less high dudgeon and more empathy in these comments.
Michael Browder (Chamonix, France)
@JETIII Really couldn't care les about the ranchers. People who own land through generations they never should have who get subsidies they never should, grazing rights, destroy riparian zones; really I have no empathy at all. None. Ranchers should not have an equal say. Nor should loggers.
Paul (Earth)
Arrest the sheriff for false arrest, a federal employee doing their job has qualified immunity.
Don Buchholz (Portland, OR)
@Paul Burning timber on private property was not part of "their job".
Tom (Nevada City, CA)
This article (and so many others) states that the Hollidays "lost" 20 acres in this insignificant event. The "lost" acreage should be relatively easy to is right where it has always been. And the grassland portions will flourish post-fire yielding higher quality forage for their cattle. Given the state of the timber market, whatever trees they lost had little to no merchantable value. Other than the Grant County officials trying to take cheap shots at federal employees (I'm shocked!), this story wouldn't warrant coverage in regional Oregon media, let alone the NYT.
Greg (Washington DC)
Let it burn, these people who encroach on Federal land and then when fire as unpredictable as it can be. The arrest of Federal Land Management best not happen again. The Federal Land Management has said it any fence is damaged by fire we set, it will be replaced. What is is the issue?
Desrat (NM)
When I was hired by the USFS through a Federal Government grant program in a county that had a big increase in unemployment. The main employer had been a sawmill that went out of business. Some of us hired under the grant were able to work after the time “seasonals” were usually laid off. We prepared previously logged areas for future burning to be completed after the first snows but before the areas became inaccessible. It was very successful. Given climate change including less predictable winds, perhaps the USFS could work out details of such a model.
Gene (Glade Park, Colorado)
Unfortunately these burns are not well controlled and pressure to go forward when conditions are not right has led to out of control fires and government employees becoming very defensive. This does not help convince people that the government is on their side because they are handled so badly by the perpetrators. Things like this cause people to hate everything the government does which is unfair.
Roger Demuth (Portland, OR)
As hinted at here, too many of the residents of these rural counties think that they have the right to despoil Federal land with their cattle, their logging, their hunting and their ATVs. If it was up to them, there would be no Federal land anywhere in the Western US. But that land belongs to all of us, not them.
Miss Anne Thrope (Utah)
For you folks who aren't familiar with these remote counties in the western US, please know that the talent pools are not very deep. County sheriffs are elected and their levels of competence vary drastically. Grant County Oregon has 4500 sq miles, 7200 people and 35,000 cows. On avg, ranches receive $16k in "gov't payments" yet still lose money each year. Ranchers are granted leases to raise their cattle on public lands and pay grazing fees that are lower than private land owners charge. The leases don't generate enough money to cover the admin costs, thus the term "welfare rancher" The USFS and BLM can't win. They're important to local economies, providing jobs and gov't wages and a wide range of loans, grants and training programs - all of which the residents are happy to take. The agencies are also whipping boys that take the brunt of the blame that residents in these fading communities direct at "the government". Ranchers can get prickly about following even the minimal rules that their grazing leases require, even tho' their cattle create enormous damage to our public lands, including to vital riparian areas. Rancher Holliday's position that "people were not necessarily opposed to prescribed burns, but needed to know that federal fire managers were able to keep them under control." typifies rural attitudes - i.e. - Help us maintain our grazing lands, but gawd help you if you make a mistake. BTW, over 99% of Prescribed Burns are conducted successfully. Just sayin'
Physician (Bend, Oregon)
After a century of fire suppression, there is no question that controlled burns play an important broke in trying to undue longstanding forest mismanagement. The devil is in the details however and carrying out a burn in Bear Valley during a record setting dry hot October on a day that was predicted to be windy is where many see folly in the fire management. Around Bend there are notable past “controlled burns” that went up into the tree canopy leading to crown torch and the death of thousands of trees which then become even more fuel for future fires. A recent logging operation west of town in spring 2022 permitted to help with fire risk included an old growth stand of large diameter trees which are the exact trees that should remain to help minimize fire risk. Fire ecology is essential. So is common sense when carrying out wildfire management operations to prevent devastating uncontrolled burns/fires like in New Mexico this year.
Full Circle (Washington)
This is clearly a hyper-complex set of issues, and I understand and acknowledge the need for these burns. However after an entire morning of consideration, I side with the family. There is something uniquely frightening about the federal government burning down your property, let alone 20 acres of forest. The article also casually mentions they've burned down HOMES recently. For commenters writing from your house: wouldn't it be kind of wild if Uncle Sam accidentally burned it to the ground? I am undecided about the criminal aspect, but the inverse is equally frightening: a situation where the government burning your property to the ground is not criminal.
Wilson Woods (NY)
@Full Circle Frightened by controlled and proven decades-long scientific evidence of the benefits and necessity of controlled burns? Check out California's horrendous fire disasters on thousands of acres of land with uncontrolled underbrush growth!
The End Is Where We Start From (Little Gidding)
If Donald Trump and Lindsay Graham can’t be held accountable for what they did or do as federal employees, why should this Fire Boss? He was literally just doing his job, which is more than it seems Trump and Graham were doing after the 2020 election.
CastleMan (Colorado)
Local sheriffs absolutely do not have the authority to arrest a federal employee for doing his job. The Justice Department should arrest and charge that sheriff for interfering with the administration of a federal program. Anything less invites anarchy and the peril of nullification.
Dave A (Eugene OR)
Though I disagree with the decision to arrest the burn captain, at least it was locals and not interlopers from Idaho and Texas using Harney County as a political playground for their libertarian “state of Jefferson” poorly-articulated agendas.
Tom Jacobsen (Oregon)
This is an area of my State that deplores Government of any kind. In true Wild West fashion they claim independence. Yet? Windy Point Cattle Company accepted Federal subsidies of $209,192 between 1995 and 2020. The Holliday Ranch accepted $564,202 Federal subsidies between 1995 and 2020. Source These are but a few from the Grant County area. While I have no idea how much Federal grazing they benefit from, in that area of the State it is very common. If they were truly independent from the Government they hate, they wouldn’t accept handouts would they?
Mtneer (Boulder)
Checkout for deeper analysis and discussion on this topic. A lot of people with deep experience are commenting.
Get Vaccinated (USA)
Eastern Oregon is a predominantly arch-conservative region that is out of step with the majority of our state. This legal action is unusual but consistent with long-standing social and political friction. In this instance, the burning of twenty acres is unfortunate but, to anyone who lives in Oregon and follows the news, it isn't the real issue, no matter what the landowner says to the press. It's all about "owning the libs", to put it in current, popular parlance. Arresting a Forest Service worker is a gross over-reaction akin to shooting a messenger. Absent the social and political issues, what should properly happen is a review by disinterested USFS investigators and managers and, if warranted, discipline of its employees by the agency and changes in regulations and procedures. That's what we do in an orderly society.
Dennis (Baltimore, MD)
Well, if any of these people's live stock venture onto Federal Land, then the animals (illegal trespass) should be destroyed then and there. Further, if a natural fire occurs, no Federal workers or anyone such employed should aid in putting the fire out. Also, the sheriff should be arrested for interfering with a Federal official doing their duty.
magicisnotreal (earth)
Remember when the Great Depression happened? We put thousands of people to work in the forests building things for us. Remember all the migrants at the border seeking refuge and work? How about all the homeless because of the republicans destroying the New Deal protections to prevent all this want whom are being falsely portrayed as drug addicts or mental patients to hide that fact? We do have a labor shortage in this country. How about we use them to manually do the work of clearing forests and solve several problems at the same time? It should be a lot cheaper than the bills for lost & damaged to errant burns property.
Jenny (Nashville)
@magicisnotreal Add prisoners on non-violent crimes. Offer them a chance to work off their sentences, provide job training and personal counseling. It would cost a lot less than for-profit prisons.
Allan (California)
The underlying premise of the Forest Service is summed up in this paragraph of the story: '“Forest thinning and the safe and effective use of prescribed fire, often in conjunction, are essential tools for reducing wildfire risks and creating resilient, fire-adapted landscapes,” the agency wrote in announcing its planned burn.' Unfortunately, that's propaganda based on bad science. The burning done to "prevent" fires, for example, is not benign in terms of climate change. Add in the carbon released by "thinning" and you've got "preservation" policy that releases more carbon into the atmosphere than actual wild fires. If this is news to you, see Chad Hanson's new book "Smokescreen: Debunking Wildfire Myths to Save Our Forests and Our Climate."
MonsP (Atlanta,Ga)
Easy fix here. Make the fire boss a member of law enforcement.
Paul (Dallas)
The federal "experts" just burned a big slice of New Mexico a few months ago. Maybe they should be arrested before their next fire, not after.
meadow (oregon)
perhaps a review of the grazing of cattle on federal land (the peoples land) by mega ranchers is in order. as the well investigated article wrote, "consuming some fences on federal land that the Hollidays were responsible for maintaining..." this is just a veiled land grab. fences to keep cows in, or keep us out. whining about a little fire.
THR (Colorado)
It might be useful to notice that the situation that caused the standoff at the Malheur NWR was caused by prosecution of a rancher due to a fire he set that jumped a boundary and caused federal land to burn. In this case the land that was unintentionally burned was private and the one setting the fire was federal. Both of these situations illustrate the need for coordination between adjacent land owners when fire is used as a management tool. The problem is exacerbated by the perpetual UNDERFUNDING of federal land management AND the ideological attitude of locals against the idea that federal land is owned by all of us, not just those who live nearby or in the same state. Coordination is needed here between all landowners involved whether federal, state, county or private. Federal land managers need sufficient funding to be responsive to local concerns and locals need incentive for cooperation despite their resentment of federal ownership and management. In this case, immediate fence repair and IMMEDIATE monetary compensation at a rate AGREED UPON IN ADVANCE would do much to reduce the damage suffered by the local rancher.
Brian (here)
If I recall correctly, wasn't one of the fires set by the rancher to cover underlying criminal acts? And another endangered firefighters already battling other blazes. So really not the same thing.
Crewsin (Near Ky)
The problem results from the composition of National Forests. When the National Forests were created not all the land within the forest boundaries was purchased by the Fed. As a result it is almost impossible not to have this type of situation occur.
Donald Smith (Anchorage, Alaska)
The fundamental issue in this matter is why does the federal government own land within a state's boundaries? Certainly land for military purposes and the like is understandable, but not vast amounts of forest, desert, mountain and grazing land. For example, in Nevada the federal government owns 79.6 of the state's land, in Alaska it is 61.3%, in Idaho it is 61.1% and in Wyoming it is 48.4%. While in contrast in Connecticut the federal government owns a mere 0.3% and in New York it is 0.6%. Is there any wonder why there is such resentment of the federal government west of the Mississippi River? Consequently the confrontations between ordinary citizens and the federal government in those states will only grow. Federal land ownership in western states challenges the very notion of states rights.
ReasonableSkeptic (Oregon)
@Donald Smith The federal government protects these lands from local residents who would cut down every old growth tree they could find. The unfounded notion that locals are the best people to manage these lands is fundamental to the issue. We all own these lands, not just people who live in the area and would benefit economically by cutting forests and over-grazing the land, until the land could no longer sustain it. Then what? Note that Ms Holliday stated an earlier fire burned some fence lines that they are responsible for maintaining. That means they lease the land for grazing. Most ranchers will tell you that they would much rather lease federal land than own and manage it themselves.
THR (Colorado)
@Donald Smith, Most of the land you're talking about is federal because, in the period up to the 1970's there was no economic reason for any private entity to want it. Land could be transferred to private ownership via The Homestead Act, The Desert Lands Act, The 1872 Mining Law and other legislation. The fact that nobody did relates to the lack of an economic way to use the land. Your claim that "Federal land ownership in the western states challenges the very notion of states rights" is simply uninformed. Land ownership in NY and CT was established BEFORE THE US EXISTED. In other states east of the Mississippi, private individuals acquired ownership of most of the federal land due to it's economic potential. In the western states, water is a limiting factor for agriculture and minerals weren't economically exploitable in most places. You will find that the statehood acts of most of the later states EXPLICITLY DO NOT give the state ownership of federal land. That was a condition of statehood in NV and probably in most of the others.
Pdx (USA)
@Donald Smith resentment toward the entity that made the entire enterprise possible and indeed props up & enables existence today in vast swaths of Western land? asking this "why" without any sense of history and facts is disingenuous, if not outright propagandic -- the "states rights" term being, you know, a tell Funny how "the growing confrontation" is created by those stoking resentment- who then turn & point to very thing being attacked (feds) as being the cause. "Why are you hitting yourself" passes for political sophistication now amongst these folks.
Hillatty (Wenatchee, Washington)
Decades-old forest practices that, in a 20-20 hindsight view, are contributing to the catastrophic fires we are now experiencing. It is widely acknowledged that government forest managers reverse these practices through a menu of solutions that include prescribed burns after conducting a thorough a long and short term risk-analyses. It is unfortunate this prescribed burn did not go as planned and that neighboring land owners suffered damages. But we should not cast blame just because a burn did not go as planned. If preventative practices were not performed the neighboring land owners could experience far greater damages. The standard for judging a burn boss and their crew should be whether the long term strategy and the short term implementation was reckless under the circumstances at the time of the prescribed burn. Responsible reporting should include both sides of the issue.
Leland (Oregon)
Wow! This is a complicated subject. I can tell you- as an Oregonian- land/fire management is a tricky subject, especially in central and eastern Oregon. Nature used to take care of things with natural fires, but things have become complicated with human development and encroachment. So now humans have to step into the shoes that nature used to do on its own. By this I mean that due to human development and encroachment, we can’t afford to let fires burn uncontrolled. The former policy used to be to put out any fire as quickly as possible. This policy led to unnaturally dense forests that became even more prone to catastrophic fires. The new policy is to keep the forest floor clear of “ladder fuels” and to thin the forests to a more natural state. Ladder fuel clearing consists of literally gathering up combustibles from the forest floor and burning the piles, followed by prescribed burns of the forest floor on a periodic basis, and thinning of the forest. This is all very labor intensive, but necessary. The predominant forests in central and eastern Oregon consist of ponderosa and Lodgepole pines. Even this is a tricky balancing act, because each species has it’s good points and bad points. The ponderosa pine is historically the more prevalent of the two species, but there are lodgepole forests, ponderosa forests and mixed forests. Problems can ensue if the percentages of the two species get out of balance. Like I said: it’s a complicated subject.
PJM (La Grande, OR)
I fear that the old way of doing business is problematic. We live in a politically charged environment which adds a new dimension to events like this . Meanwhile, as forests endure prolonged drought the need to more actively manage them, sometimes with prescribed burns, likely increases. It sounds like time for serious thinkers to engage.
john riehle (los angeles, ca)
Local sherrifs can't arrest firestorms driven by global warming. Despite their ideological obsession with the supposed benefits of privitizing government managed land the reality is that individual ranchers in the high plains will never have the interest, the training, or the reasources to do their own burns in order to protect the natural environment they and we all benefit from. The real alternative to controlled burns by trained federal personel is to let "nature" take its course and do the burning in a completely unconrolled manner. In which case instead of losing 20 acres of private forest land ranchers lose thousands of acres of private forest, grassland, buildings, cattle and, perhaps, their lives. The Forest Service and the BLM do need to train their workers and supervisors to better implement and manage controlled burns, but these sorts of activities will always necessarily involve some calculated risk taken in the interest and for the benefit of the public as a whole.
Leonard Foonimin (Minnesota)
@john riehle First off, these are not "controlled burns", we give up complete control when we light the ground. These are Prescribed Burns, we write a prescription where we take into account the available resources, personnel and "predicted weather" — within those factors that we can control we do. Fire is a natural force as are weather events. We predict based on experience, science, foreseeable events, but we don't control all the forces unleashed when we apply fire to the landscape. Fuel will burn, either under the conditions we choose, over which we have the best opportunity to manage or it will burn under the conditions we have only minimal opportunity to manage, but fuel will burn.
Jenny (Nashville)
@john riehle Since the private landowners don't want federal help with prescribed burns, then let them and local officials do without their aid if and when a natural fire threatens their non-public lands.
Dav Mar (Farmington, NM)
The Federal "fire boss" has the same protection of qualified immunity as the sheriff that arrested him. He cannot be held liable for acts performed as part of his official duties. The police apparently think think that only they receive this protection granted by the SCOTUS (there is no actual law enabling this judicial invention). What goes around comes around.
Dave Herrera (Vancouver, WA)
@Dav Mar I completely agree. I wonder if the US Justice Dept. will defend Mr. Snodgrass against these local, politically motivated charges
Ken Sternberg (Near Boston)
During college I worked as a seasonal fire fighter for the U.S. Forest service in the Pacific Northwest. Many of the fires we worked on were caused by prescribed burns that got out of control. In many cases, these burns should have been rescheduled due to high winds and other adverse conditions. On one such occasion, a prescribed burn jumped to an adjacent tree farm, causing a huge fire. But often, those in charge were just dead set to start burning despite good reasons not to. The seemed oblivious to the economic and human risks. My guess is that little has changed since then.
Creekside (NorCal)
@Ken Sternberg Yes, for me the main question this articles raises isn't a legal one. It's: are these people good at what they do? Are they competent? If they are, does their administrative hierarchy accommodate the exercise of individual good judgment?
Thomas (New York)
@Ken Sternberg The interpersonal dynamics of large organizations are not conducive to careful thought and planning. Top executives often ignore their own experts when those advise caution (e.g. the Challenger disaster), and managers are unwilling to suggest to their bosses that the jobs they've been assigned are too big and careless to be wise. Bad endings are as predictable as they are frequent.
Creekside (NorCal)
@Ken Sternberg ...and as I recall it was a Forest Service burn that caused the gargantuan New Mexico fire earlier this year. I believe the Federal government (i.e. we taxpayers) ended up accepting liability and doling out lots of money.
Ryan (Jersey City)
Prescribed burns are a vital tool to limit the potential damage caused by wildfires; arresting officials carrying them out sets a very bad precedent. The Holliday family should be appropriately compensated for the property damage, but criminal charges for the USFS employees should be off the table.
Mike (Nevada)
@Ryan if you are criminally negligent in performing your duties arrest and prosecution should always be on the table. Just because you work for the government you are not immune from the consequences of from harming others by performing your work carelessly. Law enforcement is well aware of this, so should USFS employees.
Equilibrium (Los Angeles)
@Mike Does that include Donald Trump?
tom (texas)
Well, then, burn it is.
Thomas B (St. Augustine)
We need a New Deal type of program to clear out the underbrush and such in the forests. That would also give the homeless camps to live in and something useful to do.
Rake those forests.
Eye by the Sea (California)
@Thomas B Homeless people start many brushfires here in California. Though I support a new WPA, I personally don't want them anywhere near a tinderbox.
See also