USFS burn boss arrested after prescribed fire burns private land

Practitioners fear a chilling effect on future operations.

 

A U.S. Forest Service employee leading a prescribed fire in central Oregon was arrested after the fire crossed onto adjacent private land Wednesday night, according to the Grant County Sheriff’s Office.  

According to a press release from the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, a controlled burn “escaped” Malheur National Forest lands north of Seneca, Oregon, before burning about 20 acres of a nearby ranch. Officers arrested the burn boss, the person in charge of planning, organizing and executing the operation, for what they deemed “reckless burning.” 

Fire scientists and prescribed fire practitioners say the reported arrest is unprecedented and shocking. “This is a really big deal,” said Christopher Adlam, a regional fire specialist for Oregon State University’s fire extension program. “Burn bosses need to be able to do their job, and if they are going to be under arrest for doing their job, then there’s going to be a chilling effect on the whole practice.”

“This is something a lot of land managers have been afraid of.”

The Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, a nonprofit supporting federal wildland firefighters, wrote on Twitter the reported arrest had “enormous” implications. Some fear it might scare people away from seeking out the qualifications necessary to becoming a burn boss, or from putting those qualifications to use — resulting in less prescribed fire. “My gut kind of dropped,” said Amanda Monthei, a former wildland firefighter and host of the Life with Fire podcast. “This is something a lot of land managers have been afraid of.”

Burn bosses, she said, should be thinking about fire behavior — like the direction the wind is blowing and if humidity is dropping — not getting taken into custody. “Adding another layer of potential fear to those decisions is not useful,” she said. 

Others say the incident shouldn’t hurt burning regionally. “It’s an isolated example, and I would not anticipate that it would have a big impact on work that’s going on across the West,” said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor with the University of California Cooperative Extension and the director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. 

Prescribed fire is a tool scientists say is urgently needed to improve forest resilience across the Western U.S. and to reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfires. Burns help reduce excess fuels in the forest understory, like bushes, crowded trees and other debris, to reduce wildfire risk by starving flames of burnable materials. The Forest Service’s 10-year strategy to mitigate more severe and destructive wildfires includes increasing prescribed fire by four times the current levels in the West.

Details on the prescribed burn and subsequent arrest remain sparse, and the sheriff’s office said the incident is still under investigation. When contacted Thursday evening, a front desk manager said the office was not taking questions. In a tweet on Thursday morning, officials from the Malheur National Forest said the “Starr 6 burn had a spot fire on private land” that was caught within an hour, but didn’t acknowledge the arrest. A press release from the sheriff’s office stated it was “working out the events that led to the fires' escape” with the Forest Service. Neither the sheriff’s office nor the Forest Service said whether there was any damage to structures, livestock or other assets. While the sheriff’s office called the burning reckless, they haven’t explained if and how standards for various levels of negligence, a key factor of determining liability, were met.

A prescribed burn in Malheur National Forest in 2018.
U.S. Forest Service

Prescribed fires are planned far in advance and take into account weather conditions. The Malheur National Forest put out a press release on Wednesday, prior to the escape, stating that fire officials had carefully monitored conditions and determined that temperature, relative humidity and fuel moisture were all conducive for prescribed fire projects. High Country News requested a copy of the prescribed burn’s burn plan, which lays out the conditions necessary for a safe burn, from the forest, but has not yet received it. 

Prescribed fire escapes are rare. According to a May 2022 letter from Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, 99.84% of prescribed fire projects go according to plan. Only one escape per every 1,000 prescribed fires occurs, which amounts to about six escapes per year. 

But this year, notable prescribed fire escapes captured headlines. The Hermits Peak Fire and the Calf Canyon Fire, two escaped prescribed fires, merged in April and became the largest wildfire in the history of New Mexico; the Forest Service temporarily halted all prescribed burns as a result.

“It’s really important Chief Moore stand with his people right now,” said Michael Wara, a lawyer focused on climate and energy policy at Stanford University. “That means even when unintentional things happen, he supports the people that are doing work. There are going to be errors made in the field, but if the consequences of imperfection are an arrest, a destroyed career, and potential financial liability, we’re not going to get the thing done.”

Kylie Mohr is an editorial fellow for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy

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