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

Court dismisses criminal charges against federal firefighter arrested while conducting official duties

The arrest and subsequent indictment of a federal supervisor doing his job had caused panic within the workforce and has some concerned the damage will be difficult to reverse.

A federal court has dismissed a case against an Agriculture Department employee indicted on criminal charges for conduct he undertook as part of his job, providing relief to agency staff and advocates who had called the arrest and grand jury indictment an unprecedented breach of protections for civil servants. 

Ricky Snodgrass’ arrest occurred in Malheur National Forest in 2022 after he, a U.S. Forest Service “burn boss,” led a prescribed burn of 300 acres. Todd McKinley, the sheriff in Grant County, Oregon, arrived at the scene and arrested Snodgrass for reckless burning after unexpected winds caused the fire to cross onto private land. 

Snodgrass’ case had moved to federal court and his lawyers asked the Magistrate Judge Andrew Hallman in the U. S. Court for the District of Oregon to dismiss it. After reviewing the motion, Jim Carpenter, the Grant County district attorney, opted not to oppose the motion and Hallman approved it last week. 

In their motion, Snodgrass’ attorneys said their client’s arrest amounted to a disagreement with the local sheriff over Forest Service policy and the state was subject to the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. Snodgrass was therefore immune from prosecution, they argued. 

Forest Service Chief Randy Moore praised the decision, noting the “almost two-year ordeal” had caused significant difficulties for Snodgrass but the agency had supported him throughout the process. USFS designated an agency liaison to help guide Snodgrass through the legal process and the Justice Department paid for an attorney it helped him find.

“We have maintained and continue to assert that accountability should be held by the agency if we experience a bad or unexpected outcome,” Moore said. “The accountability should never be held by an individual employee working within the scope of their official duties.”

A USFS release ahead of the 2022 burn cautioned residents to stay away from the area, asked them not to interfere with the operation and promoted the benefits of the effort. 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 local citizens drove back and forth along the road near the flames as a way of threatening the federal firefighters. Snodgrass called McKinley, the sheriff, 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.

The arrest and subsequent grand jury indictment sent shockwaves through the agency and across federal government, with employees saying it upended their understanding that they would be immune from prosecution while conducting official duties. At Forest Service specifically, several employees told Government Executive there was a general sense that the burn boss role was no longer one to aspire to and there was a growing discomfort with participating in controlled fires at all. 

USFS recognizes some risk for its employees, 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’ trial that created a bottleneck at the lower levels of the agency would have only exacerbated the problem.

Moore has sought to downplay those risks and communicated regularly to his workforce to voice his support and note efforts to improve relationships and build trust with community leaders. 

He said after the case’s dismissal that Snodgrass’ arrest “never should have happened in the first place.” 

“I know that Ricky’s arrest has given many other firefighters pause as to whether to continue their role as a burn boss for the agency,” Moore said. “I am hopeful that the positive outcome of Ricky’s case will give many of you the confidence necessary to continue working in your much-needed roles. As we continue to implement our ‘Wildfire Crisis Strategy,’ the agency needs experienced firefighters more than ever.”

He added that while he cannot guarantee that a similar event will not occur again, he would personally promise to always have the back of “any employee who is mistreated while performing their official duties.” He also pledged to continue providing Snodgrass and his family with whatever support and assistance they require. 

The agency has already implemented reforms due to previous issues with controlled fires. 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.

Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents USFS employees, said prescribed burns are essential for wildfire prevention and safety, but predicted the fallout from Snodgrass’ arrest would continue to be felt. 

“Unfortunately, Ricky’s arrest, indictment and the subsequent turbulence he and his family faced will cause other wildland firefighters to reconsider their roles as burn bosses,” Erwin said. “Without a robust program utilizing prescribed fires to clear debris and fuels, the wildfire crisis will only intensify, putting the workforce and the public in further danger.”

He called for consequences to Snodgrass’ arrest, saying the government must prevent “unlawful actions” against USFS employees and all other federal civil servants.