Tuesday, 21 Mar 2023

The arrest that shocked the firefighting world and threatens a vital practice

The arrest that shocked the firefighting world and threatens a vital practice

The arrest that shocked the firefighting world  and threatens a vital practice

Hours before Rick Snodgrass was cuffed and loaded into a squad car, he'd called the sheriff himself. The United States Forest Service burn boss had requested the help of local law enforcement in Grant county, Oregon, reporting his crew was being harassed while conducting a controlled burn within the Malheur national forest.

It was the second burn that crews had conducted in the area in two weeks, with flames intended to char around 300 acres. But that warm October afternoon, the treatment did not go according to plan.

Flames jumped their bounds, licking more than a dozen acres of private land beyond the planned perimeter. Wary of federal agencies and frustrated that some of their fences burned, the family that owned the property dialed 9-1-1. Soon after, Snodgrass was arrested for reckless burning, a Class A misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and $6,250 fine.

The arrest of a fire chief over a burn gone wrong - an unprecedented event, according to people in the wildland firefighting system - has sent shockwaves through the field and has sparked fears that growing public pushback will hamper this essential work. Locals - including the sheriff who arrested Snodgrass - claim there were serious issues with the actions taken by the federal agency and they are calling for more accountability as fire dangers grow.

While parts of Oregon have a long history of distrust towards government agencies, concerns like these are not confined to the state. Across the American west, the eruption of long-simmering tensions between the authorities conducting prescribed burns and those opposed to them has only added to the increasing obstacles - and urgency - posed by a warming world.

Prosecutors haven't filed charges against Snodgrass yet, pending investigation. Even if they determine charges are unwarranted, experts are concerned the arrest is enough to have a chilling effect on a practice considered critical to mitigate the growing wildfire risk.

"It sends the wrong message," said John Battles, a professor of Forest Ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, about the arrest, noting that it comes as scientists and officials are hoping to increase healthy burning and incentivize sluggish agencies to be more aggressive.

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