An arrest in Oregon worries those who want to enact more fires in the country

A member of the Wolf Creek Hotshots uses a drip torch to ignite the forest floor during a mandatory burn near Sisters, Oregon.

FILE: A member of the Wolf Creek Hotshots uses a drip flare to ignite the forest floor during a 2018 prescribed burn near Sisters, Oregon.

Jes Burns/OPB/EarthFix

Each year, land managers in the United States intentionally set fire to millions of acres of land. Last month, one of those mandatory fires in eastern Oregon’s Grant County had the rare distinction of making headlines.

On October 19, Grant County Sheriff Todd McKinley arrested Ricky Snodgrass, the leader of a US Forest Service crew performing a mandatory burn in Malheur National Forest.

The sheriff charged Snodgrass with reckless burning after the fire spread to about 20 acres of private land beyond the national tree line.

The incident was a potential flash point in a long-simmering conflict between western rural sheriffs and the federal government. At the same time, some advocates of mandated fire fear the arrest could be another setback in efforts to use more fire in forest management.

“The sheriff felt like he was protecting the community and restoring justice, and I think it’s quite the opposite,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, a fire ecologist and director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, or FUSE. “One of the intentions of this mandated fire was to make the community safer in the event of a future wildfire.”

fire as a tool

Forests in Oregon and throughout the American West have evolved over millennia to withstand and benefit from intermittent fires.

Fire burns through the leaves, twigs, and other fine fuels that line the forest floor faster than they can rot. It creates habitat for wildlife and hunting grounds. Smoke from fires can actually keep rivers and streams cooler for fish.

Related: Why many plants and animals in the Northwest need fire

But for most of the 20th century, land managers in the US instead worked to eliminate all fire from the landscape. That left forests filled with fuel and ushered in an era of megafires.

“We created a real problem,” said Rich Fairbanks, Jackson County forest owner and longtime firefighter. “The basic idea is if you get rid of low severity fires, you get high severity fires. You get rid of the controlled burn, all you really lose is control.”

Deliberately starting low-severity fires is a way of reaping the ecological benefits of fire under much more manageable conditions than wildfire. The crews burn small sections of forest and constantly monitor the weather and wind to ensure the flames are doing their job without getting out of control.

“The trees around here don’t even notice if we run a small 1-foot flame around their base,” Fairbanks said. “They have survived fire for millions of years…low-intensity fire is our friend.”

Escapes are rare

The vast majority of prescribed burns are completed without incident. Less than half a percent of mandated burns performed by the Forest Service escape containment. That’s about one escape route for a thousand prescribed fires set by the agency.

Ingalsbee said an even smaller number of these escapes cause property damage.

“There’s an almost infinitesimal risk of prescribed burns escaping inspection and causing massive damage,” he said. “But it only takes one, and that leaves managers and executives in agencies worried about their careers.”

One of those high-profile escapes came earlier this year when a prescribed fire in New Mexico became the Hermits Peak Fire, which later merged with the Calf Canyon Fire to become the largest wildfire in state history.

The Forest Service was harshly criticized by elected officials in New Mexico for conducting the burn under poor conditions with outdated plans.

Silver City Hotshots are conducting fire operations west of Holman, New Mexico during the Hermits Peak Fire on May 9, 2022.

Silver City Hotshots are conducting fire operations west of Holman, New Mexico during the Hermits Peak Fire on May 9, 2022.

Santa Fe National Forest/InciWeb

Forest Service chief Randy Moore ordered his agency to end all mandatory burning on national forest lands after the onset of Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon and called a task force to “review mandatory fire protocols, decision support and practices.”

This team completed its work in August, and the agency resumed mandatory fire operations in September with new guidelines for fire practitioners. However, some fire safety scientists and forest rangers worry that incidents like the New Mexico escape and arrest in Grant County, Oregon, could reinforce negative impressions of mandatory burns. And that could ultimately hurt burn boss recruitment, a highly skilled and mostly thankless job.

Moore condemned the Oregon arrest in a public statement, calling it “highly inappropriate.”

“I will not stand by without fully defending the burn boss and all employees fulfilling their official duties as federal employees,” Moore said. “This employee should not have been singled out and we are working to address these unfortunate circumstances on her behalf.”

More fire is coming

Federal, state, and tribal land managers burned more than 6 million acres with prescribed fires in 2019, according to the latest available data from the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s more than triple the area burned in mandated fires two decades earlier.

The Forest Service’s 10-year plan to reduce wildfire risk calls for up to four times the number of mandatory fires in national forest lands than today. The federal government has already spent millions of dollars to begin this work in firehouses throughout the American West, including the Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon.

Related: Efforts to reduce wildfire risk are failing, contradicts science

It’s a major advance in wildfire policy, but it also requires reversing a widespread public perception that all fires are bad fires and that fighting fires in the worst conditions is preferable to lighting them in the best conditions.

Ingalsbee said there is no “fire-free option” for forests and that neglecting mandatory burning only sets the stage for larger, more severe wildfires.

“Fire has been part of terrestrial ecosystems for 420 million years,” he said. “It’s not a choice of fire or no fire. It’s really a choice between prescribed fire and wildfire.”