This week, a US Forest Service worker in Oregon was detained when a controlled burn in a public forest spilled onto private property. It is a worrisome reaction to planned burning, a crucial tool in wildfire management, and it is an unusual action.
A 300-acre fire that had been authorised by the forest service was being supervised by Rick Snodgrass, a “burn boss,” in Oregon’s Malheur national forest. According to Grant County officials, a spot fire that was burning on Holiday Ranches’ private property burned about 20 acres.
Soon after, Snodgrass was taken into custody and taken to Grant County Jail after being charged with “reckless burning.” Although it’s unclear at this time if Snodgrass will face formal charges, county district attorney Jim Carpenter said there was sufficient justification to make the arrest.
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It is the most recent incident to highlight simmering concerns over federal land management in rural, conservative eastern Oregon.
To remove underbrush, pine needle beds, and other surface fuels that make forests more vulnerable to wildfires, prescribed burns are purposefully started under carefully monitored conditions. Scientists and ecologists agree that the plan is necessary to stop further catastrophic flames from spreading throughout the parched American west. Indigenous peoples have long engaged in this cultural practice, which has been shown to preserve the health of ecosystems and forests.
However, fire suppression over the past century has resulted in overgrown forests, and organisations are far behind in rehabilitating high-risk areas. Prescribed fire is now more necessary and hazardous as the climate warms.
The forest service briefly halted controlled burning earlier this year when two fires that were under control erupted into the biggest fire in New Mexico’s history.
But when correctly carried out, a vast majority of controlled burns proceed as intended and hardly ever exceed their limitations. Officials from the US Forest Service said that Snodgrass carried out this week’s burn in ideal circumstances.
Carpenter forewarned Snodgrass that his position with the federal government will not provide any protection. The prosecutor stated that rather than lowering the standard to which Snodgrass will be held, “the USFS was engaging in a prescribed burn.”
The arrest was described as “extremely exceptional” by Jon McMillan, a spokesman for the Forest Service, who declined to speak further due to the possibility of legal action.
Concern among fire experts and proponents of controlled fire, who have been striving to change public and agency perception, was raised by the arrest. Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor with UC cooperative extension in Humboldt county, California, and the head of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, wrote on Twitter, “This seems like a product of odd anti-government local politics, especially given where it is.” She said, “Super distressing, but hopefully not trajectory setting.”
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Right-wing radicals seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 to protest the treatment of two ranchers who were jailed for setting fire to federal range land, which sparked unrest in the neighbouring county of Harney. Armed right-wing fanatics spent 41 days inside the refuge, which is 300 miles southeast of Portland before the fight broke out.
The reasons why county officials believed this burn called for an arrest are still mostly unknown. In a news release on Thursday, the sheriff’s office noted that while specifics could not be revealed, officers and the Forest Service were “working out the events that led to the fire’s escape.”
Even if Snodgrass is not punished, his arrest may discourage controlled burning, which would probably result in more intense flames in the future. Additionally, there are worries that it will set a bad precedent or discourage others from becoming burn bosses.
The ramifications are significant, according to the advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters on Twitter. We will need to reconsider how we carry out prescribed burns on public lands.
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