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Forest Service 'burn boss' arrested after prescribed fire torches private land in Oregon

The Grant County Sheriff's Office arrested the U.S. Forest Service employee on suspicion of reckless burning, the district attorney's office said.
Firefighters light a controlled burn along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to help contain the Dolan Fire near Big Sur, Calif., on Sept. 11, 2020.
Firefighters light a controlled burn along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to help contain the Dolan Fire near Big Sur, Calif., on Sept. 11, 2020.Nic Coury / AP file

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.

Formal charges will be weighed once the sheriff’s investigation is complete, Carpenter said.

The man has since been released from jail. It was not immediately clear if he had an attorney who could speak on his behalf.

In the statement, Carpenter said the man's employer and position "will not protect him if it is determined that he acted recklessly."

"That the USFS was engaging in a prescribed burn may actually raise, rather than lower the standard" to which he will be held, Carpenter said.

The U.S. Forest Service did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In notifying residents about the fire this week, the Forest Service said in a statement that atmospheric parameters existed for a relatively safe prescribed burn, which had been planned at 300 acres. The burns are intended to prevent larger fires, but they do, on rare occasions, get away from officials.

The fire Wednesday in the Malheur National Forest may have sent an ember to the private land off Izee Highway in Bear Valley, sparking an 18-acre spot fire that was controlled in one hour, U.S. Forest Service officials said.

The Darrel Holliday Ranch, where the separate fire ignited, breeds and sells red angus cattle, according to its website. The ranch did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

No injuries were reported.

The Forest Service paused prescribed burns for most of summer in the wake of the 341,735-acre Hermits Peak fire, which started April 6 when a prescribed burn got out of control in New Mexico, and other noted escapes in the West.

The agency cited extreme weather for the pause, saying that climate change may have shifted those weather parameters and added a level of uncertainty.

In announcing the return of prescribed burns on Sept. 8, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore said his green light was conditioned on "key factors and conditions," with officials who need to be "engaged in those burns in real time."

Christopher Adlam, regional fire specialist and assistant professor at Oregon State University Extension Service's fire program, said a prescribed burn hadn't torched private land in Oregon in 20 years until Wednesday.

The arrest might not lead to more burn bosses in custody, but it could affect how officials work with prescribed burns, the scholar said.

"I have never heard of a burn boss or any fire personnel being arrested for their actions as employees of the federal government," Adlam said. "It’s easy to imagine that it could be hard on the morale of burn bosses and firefighters who already face numerous obstacles to using prescribed fire, which is the cheapest and most effective tool we know of to reduce wildfire risk."

Reckless burning is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and fines that can add up to more than $5,000.