The Arrested Burn Boss and Implications: And What Do Social Scientists Tell Us About Peoples’ Responses to Escaped Prescribed Fires?

High Country News and many others have written stories on the burn boss arrest, including a variety of views on the importance of it.

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. possible outcomes “Practitioners fear a chilling effect on future operations.”

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.

Just today I was planning a trip and there is a prescribed burn planned in the vicinity posted on Twitter.  Responses to the post on Twitter included weather maps that showed winds coming up later today, questioning the wisdom of the burn plan (oops, a fire weather warning just came up on my screen). Since this is in the area of the North Fork escaped prescribed fire, residents tend to be especially sensitive to potential misapplications.

And if you’re interested.. check out the Hotshot Wakeup podcast today for what he has heard from the ground and context. I like how he imagines being on both sides.. I think we all could use more of this imagining.

Personally I see it the burn boss arrest as one more Malheurian outlier.

But what do we know about peoples’ responses to escaped prescribed burns?

Journalists: I think there’s a story here about what social scientists have learned about how people in communities respond to escaped prescribed burns.

I bet there are other social scientists who have studied this, and please add any suggested references in the comments.  I know Catrin Edgeley at NAU and Trvis Paveglio at U of Idaho and others have done much work in this and related areas.

However, specifically on attitudes about prescribed fire escapes, I did find this interesting piece in Katie McGrath Novak’s recent master’s thesis at CSU on the Elk Fire, an escaped prescribed burn in Colorado.

All of the outreach recipients interviewed expressed continued support for forest restoration projects in their community following the Elk Fire. Most said that their perceptions of prescribed fire had not changed at all as a result of the escape; a few said that, while still supportive of prescribed fire, in the future they would be more interested in learning the qualifications of those implementing burns. Their continued support was often attributed to a sense that wildfire risk in a landscape where fuel loads had not been reduced outweighed the risk of a prescribed fire escaping. Many outreach recipients also attributed the continued support to existing relationships with outreach providers. Several recipients said that they were always aware of the risk associated with prescribed fire, but that they “trusted” the implementers to do their best. At least five of the recipients were planning forest restoration projects before Elk Fire, including two who were planning prescribed burns. All five were still moving forward with the projects at the time of their interviews.

The greatest challenge outreach recipients faced was information accessibility during the fire. During the Elk Fire, most recipients lost electricity; with many also living in an area with no cell service, this made it difficult to get any information. Others expressed that there was not enough information available about the prescribed fire before it escaped or while it was an active wildfire.

It seems like it’s all about trust. And some places are better at it than others, based on personalities and histories through time; and any way you slice it, some places are just…outliers.

McGrath Novak also did a literature review.

While it is important to keep in mind that people utilize multiple sources throughout each stage of their learning process (Ardoin et al. 2013), interactive communication may be the most telling factor in whether an information source is useful and trustworthy (McCaffrey and Olsen 2012). Earned over time through personal relationships and establishing credibility, trust is essential for successful fire management in the WUI (McDaniel 2014). Trust plays a key role in minimizing disorder and facilitating compromise in natural resources decision-making; lack of trust has been cited as a key barrier to implementing management activities (Davenport et al. 2006).

While government agencies are generally perceived as trustworthy information sources, one study found that many WUI residents were unsatisfied with USFS outreach efforts related to
prescribed fire (Paveglio et al. 2009). Non-federal partners often hold stronger relationships with landowners and possess more sophisticated outreach techniques than the USFS alone, and  collaborative groups can establish greater credibility within the community. Defined by Crona and Parker (2012) as “organizations linking diverse actors or groups through some form of strategic bridging process and that are more or less distinct from the parties they work to link”, bridging organizations have been explored as a way to connect stakeholders, managers, and decision-makers in the face of problems too large for a single entity to solve. Some key qualities of successful bridging organizations are their ability to create a politically neutral environment and promote knowledge utilization (Crona and Parker 2012). Established bridging organizations can help work through the challenges of necessary cross-boundary land management collaborations (Cyphers and Schultz 2018). It is important that the outreach entities within a collaborative effort establish consistent, jargon-free language to minimize mixed messages and misunderstandings (McDaniel 2014, Wright 2007).

A literature review by Dupéy and Smith (2018) found that fire professionals are one of the most understudied groups in the social science literature on fire. They note that filling this gap in the literature would provide a better understanding of the perceptions, strategies, and goals of those on the “front line” of fire management. Additionally, despite a growing emphasis in prescribed fire literature on the need for implementation of broad management goals to be tailored to local conditions and stakeholders (Toman et al. 2006, Schindler and Neburka 1997, McCaffrey and Olsen 2012), few empirical studies exist analyzing the factors that go into a successful customization.

Please share your own experiences and any social science studies.

10 thoughts on “The Arrested Burn Boss and Implications: And What Do Social Scientists Tell Us About Peoples’ Responses to Escaped Prescribed Fires?”

  1. Let’s not forget that the Hammonds (whose prison terms helped provoke the Bundy-led takeover of the Malheur Refuge) were also (like the Burn Boss here) charged with “reckless burning” by the federal government for lighting fires on federal land…

  2. I have neighbors who trespass, poach, steal, lie to me, lie about me, threaten and just overall are not good people.

    And I also border the federal government for around five miles.

    The federal agencies are my worst neighbors.

    By far. No comparison.

  3. The arrest has a simple explanation: law.

    Federally set fire escapes and there is ZERO tort liability for the Federal Estate. You cannot sue the sovereign.

    ENGOs sue the Feds to obey the published regulations born in Congressional law. It is a process lawsuit, litigation. The outcome wanted is for the sued agency to obey the regulations promulgated from the enabling legislation. No monetary damages. Just a cascade of legal expenses if one word is changed in a proposal, or a judge decides the agency involved failed to do the required due diligence in the required planning process and carrying out their intended action. Those legal expenses are charged to the Court and the presiding judge can award all asked for or less. Equal Access to Justice Act. Asked how much the Justice had paid for the fiscal year, AG Eric Holder’s smart ass reply was “We don’t keep those numbers.” There is no tort liability award. The “non profit” that sue gets $600 per hour for lawyers and more, and all the staff hours paid for case assembling, and information chasing.

    If the fire set for fuel reduction purposes on Federal land under the approved regulations and planning does escape containment on Federal land, there is ZERO ability for the private property damaged and the owner to collect a penny of damages and compensation for loss. “Oops” and “Sorry” don’t buy precious feed or replant timber. Up a S.F. sidewalk without a paddle. But if the private land owner was to file a plan, work with the county or state officials to use set fire to reduce fuels and prevent crown fires in timber, and the fire “escapes” and burns Federal land, there are three teams of Federal Justice Dept Civil Law attorneys to actively go after damages in favor of the Federal Government. Those teams are in Salt Lake City, Sacramento, and San Francisco. There is unlimited liability for the offending private sector organization or company. Moonlight Fire originated on Sierra Pacific land and was settled for over $100 million, including 22,000 acres of SPI land inholdings in Federal roadless areas. UPRR for a fire in the Feather River canyon, originated from a rail gang repairing a broken rail, ignited by steel grinder sparks and the Hispanic crew was not accomplished in English as a second language which was then a liability for UPRR. $112 Million damage award to U.S. And there are a host of PG&E fires caused by high wind and Federal trees falling across rights of way established when there were NO trees present a century ago. Or attributed to a cracked or broken fixture whose failure was caused by the limb or tree falling across the lines igniting fires. Better, a human with a rifle can shoot up a transformer and the Utility is held liable and has been. PG&E found liable for $32BILLION in damages for the Camp Fire and 80 plus deaths. Bankruptcy. PG&E is still in business and still in bankruptcy protection. Rate payers are liable for the damages. Some private law firms are sharing in billions in fees on a contingency basis. All because the unlimited ability of the US Govt to print money is restricted to zero when sued. You can’t sue the king or his henchmen.

    The Grant County, Oregon, arrest is not seeking liability for damages. It is seeking criminal negligence. Likely will also end with no liability for Government employees carrying out their jobs. As opposed to private sector with unlimited liability. This is a “tit for tat” situation and the aggrieved private sector tired of the Feds never, ever being held responsible. Backfires gone awry. Set fires escaping. Who needs ineptitude that is accepted and tolerated all the while the IRS is adding 87,000 money grabbers to punish private businesses? Folks have all they have and whatever borrowed invested and some Federal fire starter and crew exceed their abilities to contain and control the fires they set. Oops. Sorry. “sucker.”

  4. I don’t know if it is “overreach”, “kings rule” or just plain arrogance but an arrest without negligence is just not right! However, I own a piece of inholdings timberland next to the FS. When the FS logged adjacent lands they covered my property line in tops and slash.

    Had I done that to FS lands I would have been ticketed, guaranteed. At the time, I was a district ranger on another ranger district but same national forest. I tore into the sale administrator and demanded they move the tops and slash. You would have thought I just killed their dog or something…..

    Negligence in burning is way out of hand and should’ve dealt with (New Mexico fires, 2022). However, prescribed fire always has a relative risk and should be free of the prosecutorial cloud for things that are just truly “Acts of God”, or just plain unforeseen events….

      • Your point? Or, did you misspell retired? Either way, don’t stomp on my rights as a property owner, it works both ways…. When I receive pushback, I push it back; I didn’t put up with it out of my employees, neither.

    • Jim, I believe you are 99.99% right. However in my years of prescribed burning, I have seen a few risky chances taken by burn bosses including myself. Fortunately only one had negative consequences in 17 years. I say risky chances taken because secondary weather forecasting information indicated a high probability of surface winds developing that would exceed the specified prescription. On that one occasion where things got out of hand leading to numerous structures lost, the spot weather forecast indicated a range of wind speeds that would remain within prescription. But in the general weather forecast it mentioned a frontal boundary moving northward to the east of the prescribed fire project area. Basic weather pattern understanding that we learn as firefighters teaches us that winds will likely pick up in velocity and have the potential to become shifty and change direction as the front approaches. Knowing that it would be prudent to check the specific DRZ forecast and see when the winds were expected to pick up, and by what magnitude would they increase, and after the shifty pattern what would be the dominant wind direction? Well that information was readily available before the Lowden Ranch fire but that information was not considered by the BBoss before starting ignitions. Test fire went well, cured starthistle was burning well in the spring, not even a half hour later the front approached greater than 20 miles east of project. Winds became shifty, picked up in speed and threw embers and spots all over the flashy thistle in the opposite side of the burn engulfing homes, cutting off access and egress and trapping people in homes. No lives lost but numerous houses destroyed and the pucker factor from rapidly moving 8-12 foot flame lengths pulsing aggressively through the neighborhood was indeed scary. Moral of the story….. it did not have to happen. Better weather information was available, particularly with the GForecast indicating front approaching. The winds were reasonably foreseeable but ignored. It should have at least sparked further conversation between the NWS metereologist and BBoss questioning if the spot weather forecast had taken this into consideration. It didn’t, it was more localized to the immediate area with approximately 5-10 mile radius and did not capture the increased winds as an adjacent frontal passage moved northward to the east of the project area greater than 20-25 miles away. Not an act of god, but real information captured on the DRZ pinning down the time of frontal arrival and the changes in winds. This lesson is etched in my brain and took place 23 years ago on a beautiful blue spring day that changed in a matter of minutes. Ugly but predictable, or better yet, not the ideal day to burn if even a remote chance of the winds surfacing. Homework that needs to be done…. you know the rest of the story. Lowden Ranch.

      • Marino, I actually thought you were talking about one of my burns on some Grasslands! Very same set up, but we only had about a 12 acre slope er in private land. I was burn boss, and being heavily “advised” to continue burning. Same set up with the cold front, burning a square mile in the middle of CRP land. We actually were able to put run, out fire the square and almost got it pinched off – almost.🤣. No real issue other than some grass burned.

        As a burn boss in Oregon, back in the day, we were very careful with our plans and implementation. I never lost one there – clearcut and fuel reduction burns. However, even then, until they were “out” I didn’t sleep well at night…. I do think the FS is much more reckless now than then, accountability is certainly lacking!

  5. The bully that could beat you up in 3rd grade and then be forgiven because she or he was Mrs. Johnson’s kid, her teaching 5th grade in the same school? USFS is that kid.

    Doctors without Borders with KGB security.

    USFS can, will, and does burn your land and there is zero recourse for the aggrieved party and his/her/they losses. Insurance companies won’t write insurance to protect you from USFS fire trespass, because the insurance company has zero recourse and ability to collect in any venue.

    So this Grant county sheriff is doing his job. He can’t arrest if the DA for Grant county will not or cannot prosecute. It is disingenuous to write this off as an anomaly and something about Malheur/Umatilla NF, or Malheur county, because it is a Grant county issue. The Hollidays have been there since gold was discovered in Canyon City, the county seat.

    I don’t think generational, lifetime residents have anything in common with transient USFS personnel and retirees who have no roots in any county, only in their employment history with the Agency. Big difference in perspectives. One can be the most likable and fair minded person ever posted in John Day SO. Or wherever it is today. But who you followed or whomever follows you can be a roaring ass who would rather be anywhere but in Grant county. That person must do a rotation somewhere to enable a later posting in the SO or RO somewhere, and somehow those people yearn to be in D.C. Urban mindset working for a landscape management agency with primarily rural postings. Ukiah, Burns, John Day. Worse, dealing with generational land owners whose livelihood depends and is based on caring for the land in order that it can provide for you next year and for grandkids in 30 years. They ARE invested. Really invested. The USFS contact is temporary. The locals are permanent. The ENGOs are also temps, and working for donors seeking moral peace to alleviate their minds, reduce taxes, and also have more to include in a personal resume’. Accomplishment finery on display. You have known them. Made millions. Buy a ranch as an amenity. Sign a conservation easement with TPL, tear out the fences, and then whine when livestock finds their forage. “Open Range” has meaning. So does negligent burning, whether a set fire for resource management or in a barrel for saving the planet because of the diesel it takes to pack garbage to Burns, then it gets reloaded, hauled and dumped in an approved landfill somewhere near Ontario. Burn barrel fires come with responsibility as much as under burns and slash pile burning do. How wonderful would it be if the responsibility included making the victims whole. But it does not. Private landowner has unlimited liability if his/her/they fire trespasses on Federal land, and if Federal set fire trespasses on private land, there is no path for relief and compensation. None. Zero. Maybe the Grant county DA and sheriff are pointing that out, and making a January 6 issue out “gross” Federal trespass and harm to the very people the Constitution protects. One presumes we do live in a country that is fair and equitable, with liberty and justice for all. Or at least aspire to be all of that and hopefully more.

    I urge all to vote in November if eligible. You do have a say in how the country is governed.


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