U.S. Forest Service firefighters in the Angeles National Forest burn piles of forest debris below Mt. Baldy on Nov. 29, 2023. Controlled burns are part of the service's forest management practices.

U.S. Forest Service firefighters in the Angeles National Forest burn piles of forest debris below Mt. Baldy on Nov. 29, 2023. Controlled burns are part of the service's forest management practices. Luis Sinco / Getty Images

‘Unprecedented’ indictment of federal firefighter leads employees to question their liabilities

A workforce is panicking after a local sheriff arrested a federal supervisor doing his job.

On an October day in 2022, Ricky Snodgrass—a U.S. Forest Service “burn boss”—led a fairly routine effort to reduce the risk of wildland fire that has increasingly devastated western states in recent years. It ended in his arrest. 

Snodgrass and his crew, based in eastern Oregon at the Malheur National Forest, conducted a prescribed burn of 300 acres. A USFS release ahead of the burn cautioned residents to stay away from the area, asked them not to interfere with the operation and promoted the benefits of the effort.

“Over the past 20 years, a rising number of large and destructive wildfires have threatened lives, property and infrastructure,” the agency said. “Forest thinning and the safe and effective use of prescribed fire, often in conjunction, are essential tools for reducing wildfire risks and creating resilient fire-adapted landscapes.”

Some residents, however, did not heed the advice to stay away. Ranchers in eastern Oregon have a history of adversarial relations with federal personnel and have occasionally led efforts—at times in a violent manner—to interfere with their work.

On the day of the fire, several residents drove back and forth along the road near the flames as a way of threatening the federal firefighters. Snodgrass called the Grant County Sheriff, Todd McKinley, to request assistance in closing down the road so the firefighters could finish the job. 

When McKinley arrived on the scene, the fire had crossed onto private land. He arrested Snodgrass for reckless burning—while the fire was still underway. 

USFS employees, who told Government Executive they generally expected to be protected from criminal liability while conducting normal job duties, were shocked by the news, if not the provocation that led up to it. 

“The very immediate, genuine reaction was, ‘What the hell?’” said Eric Franta, a USFS firefighter in nearby La Grand, Oregon. 

McKinley, the sheriff, succeeded Glenn Palmer, who gained notoriety for his own fight with the federal government when he supported the militia members who occupied a Fish and Wildlife Service facility at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. That standoff, led by Ammon Bundy, lasted 41 days and cost the government more than $6 million. Much of that money went to relocating employees and their families who were subject to threats and harassment during the siege. 

The incident created buzz that permeated USFS offices as far east as Michigan, where, according to Andy Vanderheuel, a firefighting team leader there, employees exchanged their surprise that such an arrest could happen. It also reached the agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, where USFS Chief Randy Moore sent a staff-wide memorandum decrying the arrest, calling the situation “unprecedented” and promising the agency would always have the workforce’s back. 

In the months that followed, the initial hubbub subsided and many employees concluded the issue had simply gone away. They were shed of that assumption earlier this month, however, when a grand jury indicted Snodgrass on the reckless burning charge. 


Franta, a union steward at the National Federation of Federal Employees, said the position of burn boss has historically been one firefighters aspire to, noting it is seen as a perk to work proactively in preventing damaging wildfires rather than just reacting to them. Now, however, many of Franta’s colleagues are making clear they are no longer interested in conducting that work. 

Vanderheuel agreed, suggesting his colleagues are now thinking more carefully about their career paths. 

“There is definitely concern of, ‘Do I really want to be a burn boss? I’m not doing that, I’m not getting arrested for doing my job,’” Vanderheuel said. 

The employees lamented the current political climate, noting other sheriffs like McKinley may see an opportunity to make a statement or boost their careers. In many parts of the country, there is growing animosity between local and federal jurisdictions. The state of Texas recently deployed law enforcement personnel to restrict Border Patrol employees’ access to a key area along the border, creating an ongoing and tense standoff. The issue is particularly acute for Franta, who lives and works in eastern Oregon. 

“There’s a general anti-government vibe in that whole area,” Franta said. “There’s a lot of tension.” 

Max Alonzo, a former federal Forest Service firefighter who is now a national officer representing land management employees at NFFE, said the issue posed an existential threat. 

“If this were to be a successful prosecution of Ricky Snodgrass, it would completely change the landscape of our country,” Alonzo said, referring to the way the government mitigates wildfires. “If wildland firefighters are scared of doing any sort of controlled fires, they’re not going to do it.” 

He added USFS firefighters across the country are “uneasy” and “waiting to see what happens here.” 

Franta said he has heard from many firefighters who are considering pausing their advancement up the agency’s ladder to avoid the responsibilities that could make them personally liable. Scott Owen, a USFS spokesman, reiterated the events surrounding Snodgrass were "unprecedented" and said instances of an agency employee being charged while "in the capacity of carrying out their official duties are rare."

The agency recognizes some risk, however, as it subsidizes half the cost of its firefighters to obtain personal liability insurance (though federal employees generally enjoy significant protections from civil lawsuits for any action taken in their official duties). 

The Forest Service has for years warned of understaffing and struggled to compete for firefighting talent against other agencies and jurisdictions. The agency has made improvements since Congress upped their pay by as much as $20,000, but employees have continued to voice concerns about insufficient recruiting. A chilling effect from Snodgrass’ upcoming trial that creates a bottleneck at the lower levels of the agency would only exacerbate the problem. 

Franta said employees are angry USFS did not take action to prevent Snodgrass’ arrest, or to divert liability onto the agency rather than the individual. 

“This is an incredibly unnerving fact for many employees that work in fire,” he said. 

Moore has told his employees he designated an agency liaison to help guide Snodgrass through the legal process and the Justice Department is paying for an attorney it helped him find. After the indictment, he again reached out to the workforce and reiterated USFS will “ensure Rick is supported in every way and defended vigorously in court.”

“To Rick and his family, and all the affected employees in this situation, hear me—I, too, find it disheartening that an employee would be arrested and criminally charged in the course of his duties,” the chief said. “We, your agency leadership, support Rick and his family as we support and share risk and responsibility of our work with every employee.”

A source close to Snodgrass said he is “very grateful for the outpouring of support and encouragement that he has received from firefighters across the country, and the Forest Service community as a whole."

‘Cooler heads must prevail’

While Snograss’ crew worked quickly to contain the fire as conditions swept it outside of USFS territory, the burn damaged 20 acres of private property. Such incidents are not without precedent and the agency maintains protocols to compensate residents for any damage they sustain. 

In 2022, USFS personnel lost control of two prescribed burns in New Mexico that became the largest fires in the state’s history and led to the destruction of hundreds of homes. That in turn led to a 90-day pause on all intentional burns and new protocols for such operations. Now, higher-ranking officials must be present for the burns, all weather reports must be documented and more precautionary measures must be taken. 

Still, detractors expressed anger with the agency’s handling of the burn in eastern Oregon. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., who represents the area where the fire took place, told Moore at a hearing last year the local ranchers were not given enough warning to relocate their cattle in the area and the land was too dry for a prescribed burn. He further suggested McKinley arrested Snodgrass to de-escalate a tense situation. 

For his part, McKinley—who declined to comment for this story, citing that his office is "prepping for a potential trial or a plea"—told Oregon Public Broadcasting shortly after the incident the arrest “was something that just needed done,” though he suggested he had been elected to “work well with others.” 

Steve Ellis, a retired USFS and Bureau of Land Management employee of nearly 40 years, said the federal government must facilitate such improved relationships. Local officials, meanwhile, cannot act in such an antagonistic manner. 

“When accidents do happen, impacted landowners should be appropriately compensated,” Ellis said. “At the end of the day, if ultimately fire is to be managed well, cooler heads must prevail. Arresting an agency employee while he is performing his duties for the agency is not a productive path to building partnerships and only exacerbates bad feelings and mistrust.”

He added prudent management requires burns to help control the increasing damage from uncontrolled fires and failing to do so will have “profound impacts on forest health and resilience.”

Moore stressed that prescribed fire is a "critical tool" for reducing wildfire risk and protecting communities. Since Snodgrass' arrest, he said, the agency has worked with community leaders to improve relationships and build trust where it had diminished. While he hoped that would allow the agency to "quickly move past this situation," he reminded his employees they should not feel alone.  

“This is the work your leaders and I ask you to do—no one is in this work alone,” Moore said. “We are committed to learning and sharing the risk and responsibility together, always.”

Snodgrass is set to be arraigned in Oregon’s Grant County Court on March 4.