It was a stark reversal of a scenario that Billy Joel outlined years ago: They did start the fire. But, beyond that fact, consensus on why the Hammond family of Harney County, Ore., set ranch land ablaze twice in the past 15 years remained elusive.
This, as armed anti-government activists stormed and seized a federal wildlife refuge in the name of the Hammonds. Never, it seemed, have two groups of people looked at the same conflagration and come to such different conclusions.
According to Ammon Bundy — leader of anti-government protesters now occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles southeast of Burns, Ore. — the Hammonds are victims of the long arm of the federal government, gentleman ranchers punished for raising cattle on their own land. In other words, they are American heroes.
“The Hammond family has been battered and abused by the federal government for over a decade,” Bundy wrote in an email in November, according to BuzzFeed reporter Jim Dalrymple II. “Now they have been declared as ‘terrorist’ and sentenced to 5 years in prison. For what? … using their ranch.”
The federal government, of course, told quite a different tale of the fires that led to Bundy’s action. It declared — and, in 2012, a jury agreed — that Dwight Lincoln Hammond Jr., 73, and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, 46, are arsonists, criminals now on their way to federal prison to serve five years for an elaborate scheme to cover up wrongdoing that put lives in danger.
“Congress sought to ensure that anyone who maliciously damages United States’ property by fire will serve at least 5 years in prison,” acting U.S. attorney Billy Williams said in a statement in October. “These sentences are intended to be long enough to deter those like the Hammonds who disregard the law and place fire fighters and others in jeopardy.”
The trouble with the Hammonds and fire began in 2001. That year, the government showed, Steven Hammond went hunting, killing deer on land under control of the Bureau of Land Management. What to do to erase evidence of this game violation? Break out the matches.
“Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out ‘Strike Anywhere’ matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to ‘light up the whole country on fire,'” a Justice Department account of the trial read. “One witness testified that he barely escaped the eight to ten foot high flames caused by the arson.”
The result: More than 100 acres of public land were destroyed. But, the government said, Steven Hammond was ready with an explanation. Sure, he had started the fire, he said. But he never meant to burn any land his family didn’t own.
“After committing the arson, Steven Hammond called the BLM office in Burns, Oregon, and claimed the fire was started on Hammond property to burn off invasive species and had inadvertently burned onto public lands,” the Justice Department wrote. “Dwight and Steven Hammond told one of their relatives to keep his mouth shut and that nobody needed to know about the fire.”
Susan Hammond, Dwight’s wife, explained the family’s version of the story.
“They called and got permission to light the fire,” she told the Tri-State Livestock News — which bills itself as “what ranchers read.” “… We usually called the interagency fire outfit — a main dispatch — to be sure someone wasn’t in the way or that weather would be a problem.”
Livestock News called the fire “a routine range improvement practice” and said proof that the family got permission was documented in a recording of the phone call played in court.
If the government’s story and the Hammonds’ story weren’t divergent enough, a similar scenario played out in 2006. That year, the Justice Department said, Steven Hammond purposefully set a fire again without permission — this time to prevent wildfires started by lightning strikes from spreading to his property. The practice, called “back burning” or lighting “back fires,” can be effective, but it also endangers public property that abuts private ranch land. Firefighters were already battling blazes started by the lightning, and a “burn ban” was in effect.
“Despite the ban, without permission or notification to BLM, Steven Hammond started several ‘back fires’ in an attempt save the ranch’s winter feed,” the government wrote. “The fires burned onto public land and were seen by BLM firefighters camped nearby. The firefighters took steps to ensure their safety and reported the arsons.”
Susan Hammond again explained her family’s thinking.
“There was fire all around them that was going to burn our house and all of our trees and everything,” she said to Livestock News. “The opportunity to set a back-fire was there and it was very successful. It saved a bunch of land from burning.”
The Hammonds’ fires, part of an obscure beef between ranchers and BLM, might seem tangential — not the real center of a national news story about the Bundys’ hostage-free, would-be armed rebellion. But at least one federal judge opined that the Hammonds have been unfairly treated.
“It just would not be — would not meet any idea I have of justice, proportionality,” U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan, who declined to impose the five-year sentence mandated by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, said. “I am not supposed to use the word ‘fairness’ in criminal law. I know that I had a criminal law professor a long time ago yell at me for doing that. And I don’t do that. But this — it would be a sentence which would shock the conscience to me.”
Hogan — who sentenced Dwight Hammond to three months in prison and Steven Hammond to one year and one day — was overruled by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which upheld the five-year mandatory minimum sentence in October and ordered that the Hammonds be resentenced accordingly. Yet, the Hammonds, on their way back to federal prison, have chosen to distance themselves from the Bundys.
“I have received information that Ammon Bundy has communicated with you or your office about the Hammond Family,” W. Alan Schroeder, an attorney for the Hammonds, wrote to David M. Ward, Harney County’s sheriff, in December. “… I write to clarify that neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organization speak for the Hammond Family.”
The ranching community seems caught in the crossfire. Sure, the Hammonds broke the law. But did they need to be prosecuted as terrorists? Then again, even if they are technically terrorists, do they need the likes of the Bundys — anti-government agitators — speaking on their behalf?
“I fear it reflects badly on the ranching community and the local community, or at least has the potential to,” Barry Bushue, a friend of the Hammonds and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, which condemned the sentence, told the East Oregonian last week before the occupation began. “We are incensed by the fact that [the Hammonds] have to go back to prison, but in the end, the rule of law has to be followed.”
Correction: A previous version of this article included a tweet from a Twitter account linked to Ammon Bundy later revealed to be a hoax. This tweet has been removed.