Northern Ag Network Note:  These two articles have us scratching our heads.  On one side you have the US Forest Service whose prescribed burn got out of control and burned 11,000 acres, at least half of which was private ranch land, and it gets declared "No Liability."  On the other side, you have a family who got permission to start a prescribed burn then ended up with jail time when the fire got out of control and  burned 140 acres of federal land.  How exactly does that work?

Federal government denies liability on U.S. Forest Service lit Pautre Fire

In April of 2013, a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn fire got out of control and ended up scorching nearly 11,000 acres of public and private lands southwest of Lemmon, South Dakota.  One outbuilding was burned, along with fences, hay, and pastures.  

According the the Tri-State Livestock News (, the ranchers affected by the fire finally learned on June 27, 2015 that the the federal government will not take responsibility for the fire or associated expenses.  The local grazing district had filed a claim for almost $2.5 million in damanges to restore the burned acres of prairie, fence, trees and hayground.  

“Our review of the claim discloses no liability on the part of the United States. Therefore your FTCA (Federal Tort Claims Act) claim is denied,” said an assistant with the office of general counsel under the United States Department of Agriculture to the claimants.

UPDATE 1/5/2016:  Private landowners and ranchers affected by the blaze filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service last week after their claims for damage compensation were denied. The U.S. Forest Service ruled that the agency was not responsible for damages even though they intentionally set the fire, against recommendations from local ranchers and weather forecasters.  Stockgrowers Question Federal Fire Double Standards

Two Oregon Ranchers Sentenced to Jail for Range Fires

The Western Livestock Journal reports ( that an eastern Oregon family with a long history in ranching is fighting to keep its cow/calf operation afloat against an onslaught of blows from the federal government. Two members of the Hammond family have been charged under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 for starting two range fires that ended up on federal land.

One of the fires, set in 2001, was a prescribed burn on Hammond’s private property; a routine range improvement practice. The other fire, set on Hammond’s private property in 2006, was a back-burn intended to protect the ranch’s winter pasture from a lightening fire on adjacent federal land. Combined, the two fires burned about 140 acres of federal land. Now, although two Hammond family members have already done time in federal prison for setting these fires, they are facing a resentencing—now scheduled for late October—that could land them back in prison.

The ranch is also paying $400,000 as part of the court settlement for the alleged costs of fighting these fires.

UPDATE 1/5/2016:  On  January 4, 2016 Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond left their homes to report to a federal prison.  Dwight will be 79 when he gets out.  

When the Hammonds were originally sentenced, they argued that the five-year mandatory minimum terms were unconstitutional and the trial court agreed and imposed sentences well below what the law required based upon the jury’s verdicts.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, upheld the federal law, reasoning that “given the seriousness of arson, a five-year sentence is not grossly disproportionate to the offense.”  The court vacated the original, unlawful sentences and ordered that the Hammonds be resentenced “in compliance with the law.”  Chief Judge Aiken imposed five year prison terms on each of the Hammonds, with credit for time they already served. 


For Additional Information:

Oregon Ranchers Declared Terrorists and Sent Back to Prison

Oregon Cattlemen Petitioning Clemency for Hammonds

Walden Addresses the Frustrations of Oregon Ranchers and Rural Citizens


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