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'We Are Going to Light Up the Whole Country on Fire': The Arson That Led to the Oregon Militia Standoff

The ongoing occupation of a wildlife refuge by armed militiamen was sparked by the imprisonment of two ranchers for setting a blaze in 2001 that scorched 139 acres.

by Keegan Hamilton
Jan 5 2016, 1:05pm

Ammon Bundy, après s'être adressé aux médias au Malheur National Wildlife Refuge près de Burns dans l'Oregon. (Photo de Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

The case that prompted the ongoing occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon by armed militiamen dates back to September 30, 2001. Nearly 15 years later, exactly what happened that day remains hotly disputed. But what's not under contention is the fact that roughly 140 acres of federal land were scorched in a blaze that was started by two ranchers who, as of Monday evening, are now behind bars in federal prison.

According to the Department of Justice, the 2001 incident started with rancher Dwight Hammond and his son Steven hunting on federal land adjacent to their property near the city of Burns in a remote stretch of eastern Oregon. The feds allege that the Hammonds "led an unauthorized hunting expedition" and "illegally shot several deer."

When a district manager from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approached the younger Hammond to confront him about the poaching, he "ducked into the brush to hide," according to a Supreme Court brief filed by the government in February 2014. The district manager said he then encountered four men armed with hunting rifles, which made him "very uncomfortable with the situation" — to the point that he felt unsafe and decided to leave the scene.

Related: Armed Militiamen Occupy Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and Threaten Showdown With Feds

Soon afterwards, according to the court brief, Steven Hammond handed out boxes of matches to his fellow hunters. "We are going to light up the whole country on fire," the rancher, now 46, reportedly said. He allegedly gave one box of matches to his then 13-year-old nephew, Dusty Hammond, and instructed the boy to walk along the fence line that separated the Hammond property from federal land and drop the lit matches "until he ran out."

Dusty later told investigators he did as he was ordered, striking matches and dropping them into the grass. He soon saw smoke coming from the direction where the other hunters had walked, and found himself surrounded by a raging wildfire. He got trapped against a creek and said he thought he "was going to get burned up" by the 8-to-10-foot-high flames. The teen managed to escape, but the fire eventually scorched 139 acres.

In 2012, the Hammonds were found guilty of starting the 2001 fire and another one in 2006 on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, also in Oregon. The judge in the case decided that the mandatory-minimum sentence of five years was too harsh, so Steven was sentenced to a year in prison, while his 73-year-old father Dwight was ordered to serve three months. After they had completed their sentences and were released, an appeals court ordered the Hammonds back to prison to serve the full five-year terms required by the law.

Alan Schroeder, the attorney who represents the Hammonds, has not responded to a request for comment from VICE News. The Hammonds reported to a federal prison in California on Monday to begin serving the remainder of their sentences.

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Their supporters — led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who was involved in a separate 20-year legal dispute with the BLM that culminated with armed militiamen confronting federal agents last year — have portrayed the Hammonds as being victims of government overreach.

"The Hammond family has been battered and abused by the federal government for over a decade," Ammon reportedly wrote in an email in November. "Now they have been declared as 'terrorist' and sentenced to 5 years in prison. For what?… using their ranch."

The Hammonds' beef with the BLM dates back nearly three decades, and has to do with a dispute over cattle grazing on the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, which the family feels they are entitled to use. The feud — part of a long-standing conflict between ranchers and the federal government dubbed "the Sagebrush Rebellion" — has pitted the influential family, which owns 12,000 acres of ranchland in eastern Oregon's Diamond Valley, against the federal agencies in charge of conservation on public lands.

In 1994, according to High Country News, Dwight and Steven Hammond were charged with two counts each of felony "disturbing and interfering with" federal officials or federal contractors when they tried to stop a crew from building a fence to keep the family's cattle out of the wildlife refuge. 

A congressman sent a letter to the US Secretary of the Interior on their behalf, and their charges were eventually reduced to misdemeanors. The paper also reported that the elder Hammond allegedly made death threats against managers of the refuge on at least four occasions between 1986 and 1994.

Ammon Bundy has characterized the wildlife refuge a "tool to do all the tyranny that has been placed upon the Hammonds," and called on "all patriots" to join the occupation, urging them to "come prepared." Men toting assault rifles and decked out in camouflage have been spotted near the occupied building.

While the national media has focused its attention on the occupation, which began on Saturday after a protest in Burns, the background of the case that spawned the standoff has often reduced to a few brief sentences: The Hammonds were found guilty of starting fires, but claim they were controlled burns meant to rid their property of weeds and invasive species.

Federal prosecutors, however, have described a disturbing pattern of behavior by the ranchers, including repeated attempts to cover up their wrongdoing, and a reckless disregard for the safety of the public, firefighters, and federal agents. The Hammonds have defended their actions, and the claim that they were simply setting controlled fires as part of the standard upkeep of their ranchland was first made a few hours after the blaze on September 30, 2001.

Related: Obama Meets with the US Attorney General to Take Gun Control into His Own Hands

When Dusty made it back to the Hammond ranch, he said his uncles Dwight and Steven told him to "keep his mouth shut" about what happened. Steven later called the BLM and claimed the family had conducted a "prescribed burn" on their property. They later denied being involved with the fire altogether, then eventually said they had permission to spark the blaze.

According to the Tri-State Livestock News, a trade paper for ranchers, Dwight Hammond's wife Susan said that when the family burned their land — a common practice in range management — they "usually called the interagency fire outfit — a main dispatch — to be sure someone wasn't in the way or that weather wouldn't be a problem."

'They called and got permission to light the fire.'

"They called and got permission to light the fire," Susan reportedly said, claiming that the BLM told the family that a separate controlled burn was happening in the area on the same day in 2001. The Tri-State Livestock News reported that the court transcript includes a recording from that phone conversation.

The other fire that the Hammonds were found guilty of starting occurred on August 22, 2006, when a wildfire was spreading on federal land near the Hammond ranch. The BLM and firefighters were working to keep the fire under control, but, according to the feds, one of the firefighters noticed three small fires burning all in a row, which was "not characteristic of what a wildfire would do." The small fires eventually spread, burning at least an acre of land.

Steven Hammond reportedly drove up and admitted to a BLM supervisor that he started the fires "in order to provide a buffer to protect his property from the wildfire." When the younger Hammond was told he wasn't allowed to do that — and that he had put the firefighters in danger — Steven allegedly "got upset" and said the BLM "better just clear out."

The next morning, according to the feds, two firefighters again saw Steven driving on federal land. They later found several "suspicious fires" nearby, and saw Dwight Hammond "in the same area walking away from a freshly lit fire." The elder Hammond allegedly tried to flee the scene, but a BLM agent caught up to him. The agent reportedly told Dwight that people were "all over this mountain," and that Dwight was "going to get someone killed." The BLM agent reported that he was forced to flee when the fire spread, and claimed that the Hammonds later tried to intimidate him into not reporting the incident.

Susan Hammond told the Tri-State Livestock News that Steven started the 2006 fire to protect their property from the wildfire. "There was fire all around them that was going to burn our house and all of our trees and everything," she said. "The opportunity to set a backfire was there and it was very successful. It saved a bunch of land from burning."

The Hammonds were accused of setting other fires — including a one known as "the Granddad" that scorched 46,000 acres — and were charged with multiple counts of arson, conspiracy, and witness tampering. The jury in their case ended up deadlocked, and the Hammonds only admitted involvement in the two blazes as part of a plea deal. In handing down the lesser sentences that were eventually overturned, the judge said the five-year penalty did "not meet any idea I have of justice," and "would shock the conscious."

Supporters of the Hammonds — including the Bundy brothers — have expressed outrage that they were charged under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, meaning they could be considered convicted terrorists. (The terror issue has also come up repeatedly on social media, but for an entirely different reason: Many commenters have called for the media to refer to Bundy's band of militiamen as terrorists.) Others have pointed out in the Hammonds' defense that the BLM has set fires that spread onto private land, and that controlled burning of brush is an effective way to prevent wildfires.

Related: Oregon Militia Wants to 'Free' Occupied Land for Logging, But There Are No Trees

The complicated case involves a host of other issues, including the right to graze cattle on national forest land. For the Bundys and their followers, it boils down to what they feel is the federal government being overly protective of public land and treating the Hammonds unfairly. Ammon Bundy has said they plan to continue the occupation of the wildlife refuge headquarters indefinitely, until the government hands over the national forest land to ranchers, loggers, and miners for commercial use.

"We're planning on staying here for years, absolutely," he told the Oregonian over the weekend. "This is not a decision we've made at the last minute."

Ryan Bundy reportedly said they're "willing to kill and be killed" if the feds try to oust them from the building, but the prospect of the standoff turning violent seems slim at this point. There are said to be around 20 militants holed up at the wildlife refuge, and they have reportedly been allowed to come and go as they please with minimal police interference. 

As for the Hammonds, their attorney told the local sheriff that the Bundys don't speak for them. The lawyer also reportedly said the Hammonds plan to ask President Barack Obama to grant them clemency for the arson case, which would allow them to be released from prison early.

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton