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Forest Service Employee Arrested after Planned Burn Torches Private Land in Oregon

Forest Service Employee Arrested after Planned Burn Torches Private Land in Oregon

Chief of the Forest Service decries arrest of worker.

Legal Insurrection readers may recall that in May of this year, I reported that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) had started the two blazes that grew into New Mexico’s largest wildfire in history.

With that in mind, it is understandable that an Oregon sheriff arrested a USFS employee whose planned burn also went awry.

A U.S. Forest Service employee was arrested after the prescribed fire he was managing torched 18 acres of private land in Oregon, authorities confirmed Friday.

The man, known as a “burn boss” for his duties planning and supervising prescribed burns, which are intended to reduce fuel for wildfires, was arrested on suspicion of reckless burning, Grant County District Attorney Grant Carpenter said in a statement.

The Grant County Sheriff’s Office responded to the fire Wednesday afternoon after it sparked a separate blaze on the Darrel Holliday Ranch in the area of Bear Valley, the DA said.

Sheriff Todd McKinley made the arrest at the scene after determining he had “probable cause to arrest the USFS fire boss,” Carpenter’s office said in the statement.

While formal charges are still pending, the USFS has lodged a complaint against the sheriff.

The local district attorney was having no part of that argument.

The head of the U.S. Forest Service has denounced the arrest by an Oregon sheriff of a Forest Service employee after a planned burn in a national forest spread onto private land.

The criticism by Forest Service Chief Randy Moore was followed by a statement from Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter in which he defended the arrest on Oct. 19 of a U.S. Forest Service “burn boss” on allegations of reckless burning.

“I respect the sheriff’s discretion and decision to make an arrest in this case,” Carpenter said Tuesday. Sheriff Todd McKinley occasionally briefs Carpenter on an investigation into the case, the prosecutor said, adding that it could last for weeks or even months.

Interestingly, the wildfire season has now officially ended in Oregon.

The impact of wildfires on the land this year may prove somewhat smaller than last year’s. An estimated 536,693 acres have burned to date in Oregon, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland. Last year, wildfires burned 828,777 acres. And in 2020 – one of the most destructive fire seasons in Oregon’s history – fires scorched well over a million acres and destroyed thousands of homes.

Though the season may be over for most, a handful of fires remain active, said Ted Pierce, a manager with the Interagency Center. Pierce said roughly 1,400 personnel are still deployed in Oregon and Washington, most of them on the Cedar Creek Fire.

Oregon is lucky the “burn boss” and his blaze didn’t create an historic fire, as happened in New Mexico. Perhaps the time has come that our federal employees face a little local accountability when their mistakes damage and destroy the region in which they work.

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Comments

The Sheriff and District Attorney need to brush up on 28 U.S. Code § 1442. Simply put, the criminal charges can be removed to Federal Court. Guess what happens there?

    Sanddog in reply to sequester. | October 30, 2022 at 12:31 pm

    This is a way of giving notice to the fed that the old way of doing things isn’t acceptable. God help the next fire boss who tries to set a burn in New Mexico in the spring, a time KNOWN for very high winds and low humidity.

      CountMontyC in reply to Sanddog. | October 30, 2022 at 1:22 pm

      Dwight and Steven Hammond were convicted by the federal government for doing the very same thing. They spent years in prison. What is good for the goose is good for the gander.

        Milhouse in reply to CountMontyC. | October 31, 2022 at 12:47 am

        That was their story. There was plenty of evidence that they were lying.

          RandomCrank in reply to Milhouse. | October 31, 2022 at 6:43 pm

          I am steeped in that one. I could enlighten everyone here. I’m not sure I’m in the mood. Maybe I’ll just throw out a few crumbs here to gauge serious interest.

          – The Hammonds pled guilty, got a light sentence, and then were re-sentenced as the result of a crazy U.S. attorney’s vendetta.

          – The treatment of the Hammonds inspired the Bundy clan from SE Nevada to travel to SE Oregon and occupy a building in a wildlife reserve. The patriarch, Cliven Bundy, is (was? — not sure if he’s still with us) a Posse Comitatus nutcase and FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints) adherent who I was reliably informed has/had six wives.

          – The FBI and Oregon State Police intercepted another FLDS guy, “Lavoy Finicum,” a fake rancher and I believe another polygamist on U.S. 395, north of the wildlife reserve, and killed him. It was a “good shoot,” i.e. the authorities were in the right on that one.

          – Notwithstanding the paragraph immediately above, the FBI told lots of lies. They were so egregious that a Portland jury tossed all the charges against the Bundys. Trust me, for a Portland jury to side with the defense in that case, the FBI had to really f it up.

          I know this because I was a frequent visitor down there and got to know a very solid local who knew EVERYONE involved. During the standoff, we’d talk on the phone and I’d get the inside skinny. Also, at one point, I actually exchanged a bunch of posts online with a guy who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent, a real lying squirrel.

          Bottom line: No one acted well, to put it mildly, except for the Portland jury. Oh, and my next-door neighbor knew one of the jurors.

          If that inspires interest here, I can fill it in, because there are lots more details for those who like mysteries and police procedurals. Me, I’m a retired old-school professional journalist and fact-hound, and major fan of the original Law & Order shows (not the P.C. revival), so I really went down the rabbit hole.

          I’m only going to elaborate if I get enough requests.

You know, they’re supposed to do controlled burns at the BEGINNING of the fire season, not its end.

    Oregon Mike in reply to Socratease. | October 30, 2022 at 2:22 pm

    Not in Ponderosa Pine forests. As I understand matters, controlled burns in the spring, while the Ponderosas are trying to put on new growth, can damage their roots, often causing mortality. For this reason, the burns are conducted in the fall, as the trees are going dormant. My source for this tidbit is a retired forester whose career was principally in Central and Eastern Oregon, where the forests are predominantly Ponderosa.

      RandomCrank in reply to Oregon Mike. | October 31, 2022 at 6:53 pm

      It’s mostly juniper where that utter moron set a fire after 5 months without rain. Good enough for god damn government work, right?

While I don’t agree the man should be arrested for doing his job I am empathetic to the plight of how these prescribed burns go awry and do damage beyond what is intended. There should be more coordination with local fire departments and construction crews to minimize the impact of prescribed burns as much as possible, but even then fire is going to do what fire is going to do.

    CommoChief in reply to chrisboltssr. | October 30, 2022 at 1:38 pm

    On the other hand, setting a fire for a controlled burn is a good deal like discharging a firearm; the bullet travels to end of it’s range or is halted by impacting a solid mass. Did they intend to have their burn get that large? Probably not but it did because something in their plan or in the execution of the plan was negligent.

      Agree. Same principle as a boats wake. Federal and State law make the operator legally responsible.

      https://www.blslawyers.com/boaters-responsibility-for-own-wake-watch-your-wake.html

      DaveGinOly in reply to CommoChief. | October 31, 2022 at 2:09 am

      As I understand it (I may be wrong), the fire boss was arrested during the fire. Was this necessary? Could this disruption to the direction of the burn and the chain of command put people’s lives in danger? I have zero problem with arresting the boss, but if was arrested during the burn, I’d have to question the judgment of the sheriff. It’s not like the burn boss knew he had committed a crime and was going to flee.

        CommoChief in reply to DaveGinOly. | October 31, 2022 at 8:28 am

        Arresting a person while in the commission of a crime doesn’t seem objectionable. You seem to imply that letting this person stay on site to conclude his activities would have been a better course. Since his judgement and professional competence had been undermined by his demonstrated errors I can’t see leaving him in place to potentially make things worse. There are other folks capable of assuming control of the operation and containing the blaze which we already know had exceeded the limits of this person’s projections and any safeguards he had established.

          DaveGinOly in reply to CommoChief. | October 31, 2022 at 11:39 am

          I’m saying that if there are people in the field relying on his direction, any disruption to that direction may result in confusion, loss of life, and possibly more damage to property. The sheriff is not an expert on intentional burns. He could not have known how criminally culpable the burn boss may have been for the property damage (hence a weeks- or months-long investigation, in order to gather the necessary information to support a prosecution). It can be presumed the burn boss was the boss because he was the most knowledgeable and experienced person at the burn. Why would taking him from his post result in a higher level of safety to the community when he would almost certainly be replaced by someone with less knowledge and/or experience? Even if he’s actually made mistakes, removing him didn’t guarantee an improvement in the burn team’s leadership, and the sheriff could not have known that the boss’s removal wouldn’t result in more damage.

          What you have presumed about the burn boss’s failures is not in evidence. Did he plan the burn, or was he only in charge? Did the burn go out of control due to circumstances beyond his control? Even if they didn’t, how would the sheriff have known? Is he an expert on controlled burns? There are such things as “accidents”, events that can’t be foreseen. If mistakes were made, did the sheriff know that the burn boss would be replaced by someone capable of rectifying the situation? Did the sheriff go to the burn boss’s superior and tell him “I’m going to arrest your guy. You need to replace him with someone competent now”? Were those “other folks” already on-scene? Were they even available? Did the sheriff even inquire? If not, the sheriff is lucky his actions didn’t result in more damage, for which he may have become responsible by decapitating the burn crew during an already difficult operation.

          CommoChief in reply to CommoChief. | November 1, 2022 at 11:09 am

          Dave,

          The guy in charge is person who holds the responsibility.

          Govt officials being given a pass or even leeway as you seem to suggest based upon the argument that they were ‘doing their job’ or following directives has led to bad things historically. If a govt employee breaks the law they should by and large anticipate being arrested.

          Say a city work crew is sent to the wrong address to remediate a dwelling deemed uninhabitable or dangerous. They demolish the wrong house. Lots of criminal violations there and everyone of them should be charged. No excuses of ‘oops we made a paperwork error, sorry but tough shit’.

          Same for LEO deciding to raid the wrong home. ‘Oops we transposed the numerals in the address, sorry we breached your door, shot your husband and killed your dog’. Public servants must be held accountable for their criminal violations. Period.

          You are the one injecting unsubstantiated theories here such as the Sheriff just arrested the guy and everyone went home leaving the fire to burn.

        Assuming “it’s a fair cop” – ie there was cause for arrest – the sheriff arresting the fire boss while he was still in the sheriff’s jurisdiction only makes sense. It’s unlikely the boss was a local or was going to stay near the scene of the crime/mistake. If the arrest was in error, the local DA should overrule. He didn’t. Failing that, the local judge should throw the case out. Or find him innocent. It’s The System and being a federal employee shouldn’t in general give immunity not granted to others citizens – not unless the law specifically provides such protection. Heck, even such protection should be very limited – for example unlawful prosecution based on prosecutorial misconduct should be easier to prosecute than it is currently. A DA (or DA’s office) that knowingly violates the law for personal or electoral purposes in a prosecution should be easier to prosecute themselves.

        Playing Devil’s Advocate – I do wonder if the sheriff was a relative or friend of the injured party. Small town/community law enforcement / politics can be like that.

          DaveGinOly in reply to BobM. | October 31, 2022 at 11:42 am

          I made it clear that I didn’t think the sheriff was wrong to arrest the burn boss. I think he was mistaken to arrest him during the operation (if that’s what happened). Investigations into criminal activity proceed all the time, with suspects not arrested until sufficient evidence has been gathered to charge and try. What expertise in controlled burns did the sheriff have that led him to make an arrest during the operation, and before a competent investigation by investigators with such knowledge?

    Oregon Mike in reply to chrisboltssr. | October 30, 2022 at 2:25 pm

    You’re right. Weather is gonna do what it’s gonna do, as well. With disastrous and predictable results, as we found out in New Mexico this year, as winds were predicted at the time of the burn, or with unpredictable results, when the wind just happens to come up due to local conditions.

I’ve mentioned the Oklahoma Mesonet system before in comments. It is a state-wide system of weather stations with a station in each of the counties.

There is a OK-Fire section https://www.mesonet.org/index.php/okfire/home

A few years ago, there was a major wildfire in the western part of the state and news reports mentioned that the state used this system to send fire units and other public service personnel to specific areas.

It looks like building state-wide mesonet sites is increasing – there is a national site which lists states with programs. https://nationalmesonet.us/

This reminds me of the Animas River debacle.

Why do we assume that someone from a gov’t agency is expert in anything?

Evidence proves the contrary. Repeatedly.

That could never happen here in CA. Starting forest fires is the job of SoCal Edison and PG&E and here, it is legal.

I worked on National Forests in AZ, UT and ID. Either you want to reduce the fire load or you don’t and fires often don’t do what you want. That sheriff is grandstanding. Work together to get that load under control. Must be an election year.

Planned burns are an essential tool of forestry. While in this case it was done poorly we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I also highly doubt that what went wrong in a highly complicated operation was down to just one employee or that particularly employee had special malice in his heart or was doing something actually criminal.

    Sanddog in reply to Danny. | October 30, 2022 at 11:57 pm

    What happened in NM came down to one bureaucrat in the Santa Fe who ordered the Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger District to initiate a burn, despite the fact that they’d had weeks of high winds and low humidity. She depended on a spot weather report that didn’t accurately reflect what was going down on the ground in mountainous terrain. When it escaped containment, there wasn’t a single person in the area who was surprised. The two most destructive fires in the last 100 years in NM were both set by the USFS. When they fuck up, they do it on a very large scale.

    ‘Poorly’ is a matter of opinion and scale. For general purposes, there are 640 acres in a square mile, and about 98,000 square miles in Oregon. A controlled burn on the very BEST of days can be like juggling dynamite, since there are so many variables you have no control over including weather. 18 acres won’t even show up on a map of the area, and to ‘only’ go over the line that far is a testament of good fire management that had one or two hiccups, because *bad* fire management would have lit up the whole county and then some. Summary: The sheriff goofed up far worse than the Forest Service employee.

I am very familiar with the exact area where this happened. From everything I’ve been able to gather, the Forest Service employee was highly negligent and culpable. This happened after five months without rain, in an area highly susceptible to wildfire even in a normal year let alone the very dry one we just went through.

I have no idea what will happen now, but I can say with HIGH confidence that this is far from the first time that the FS and BLM (Bureau of Land Management, not the other BLM) have screwed up royally and then run away from their negligence.

Grant County’s sheriff is kinda-sorta wingnutty, but he’s right about this. I have to figure that the feds will find a way to cover for their employee regardless. Believe me, this kinda shit ain’t rare down there.