Nearly 11 years after the fact, Dusty Hammond recalled for a jury Wednesday in a U.S. District Court how he stumbled through juniper and sagebrush to escape a fire bearing down on him, a fire he helped set.
Hammond, 24, softspoken and clean cut, explained how his first-ever deer hunt near Frenchglen turned to arson after his uncle Steve Hammond passed out boxes of strike-anywhere matches to the four-man hunting party.
“Light the whole countryside on fire,” Dusty said his uncle told him. “I started lighting matches.”
Afterwards, he said, over lunch his grandfather and uncle instructed him to “keep my mouth shut; nobody needed to know anything about the fire.”
Steve Hammond and his father, Dwight L. Hammond Jr., are on trial in Pendleton on nine counts, including conspiracy and setting fire to public grazing lands in Harney County between 2001 and 2006. A superseding indictment May 16 alleges the father and son ranchers illegally burned public rangelands, a practice used to reduce juniper growth and improve grazing areas. The indictment also alleges a fire the pair started in 2006 threatened to trap four BLM firefighters, one of whom confronted Dwight Hammond at the fire scene.
The trial, in front of U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene, may last three weeks.
Wednesday, Dusty Hammond, facing his grandfather and uncle in court, delivered short answers in a flat tone to describe the Sept. 30, 2001, hunt with his father, Rusty Hammond, uncle, grandfather and Jacon Taylor. Four times lawyers asked that he speak louder or adjust the microphone so jurors might hear his testimony.
The hunting party walked to a fence line dividing Hammond Ranch from a BLM section and stopped at a cattle guard, Dusty said under questioning by U.S. Attorney Frank Papagni Jr. There, he said, Steve Hammond handed each a box of Diamond Strike Anywhere wooden stick matches. He was instructed to walk the fenceline by his uncle and “start lighting until you run out.”
He said he lit one match after another as he walked, but each one sputtered out before hitting the ground. His father showed him how to light a handful of matches at once, and soon the brush burned at his feet, he said. He walked until finding himself alone, with fire coming up behind him, towering 8-10 feet above his head, he said.
He never actually saw his uncle set fire that day, only smoke rising up from his direction, he said. He remembered the day clearly despite the intervening years because of his close scrape with fire. He said he scrambled into a rocky area that day and waited until the fire passed by.
Later, he said, Dwight, his grandfather, flew his Super Cub over the scene to gauge the effect the fire had on juniper there.
Dusty Hammond said he never spoke of the day out of fear of his uncle and grandfather, a fear he’s since shed. He lived on the ranch until about age 15 but distanced himself from his Hammond relatives.
But he failed to testify, as Papagni said he would during his opening statement to jurors Tuesday, that his uncle and grandfather talked about using fire to scare away hunters who came too close to Hammond Ranch property. A Utah man and his son, Dennis and Dusty Nelson, testifying before Hammond, described meeting a hunting party, presumably the Hammond party, on the BLM tract that morning.
Both men described a clear day marred by smoke that grew heavier as the morning wore on.
Papagni asked Hammond three times whether he’d ever heard his uncle and grandfather discuss what to do about hunters “on the mountain.” But Hammond each time said no.
Contact City Editor Joseph Ditzler at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0828.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.