Terror Comes to the High Desert:
BLM Wild Horse and Burro Corrals Are Firebombed

By Joseph Fontana

The BLM’s Litchfield Wild Horse and Burro Corrals, constructed shortly after passage of the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, are nestled in a quiet and remote sagebrush-covered plain at the base of the Skedaddle Mountains in California’s Lassen County.  It’s a peaceful setting in the high, cold desert along the California-Nevada border, yet it has been rocked over the years by attacks from those who violently oppose the BLM’s management of wild horses and burros.

BLM wranglers, who each day care for up to 1,000 animals, have been resilient in dealing with the aftermath of these attacks, which have included fence vandalism and arson.  An incident in the fall of 2001, only a month after the devastating terror attacks of September 11, was different.  This time, the attack had the signature of an ecoterror organization.

On the morning of October 15, the crew was heading back to Litchfield after spending the weekend near California’s state capitol, where about 4,000 Californians attended a BLM festival celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act.  Nearly 80 mustangs and burros were adopted.  Festivalgoers posed for photos with trained wild horses and burros.  They enjoyed music, games, and food.  It was a true family festival, a rousing success, and the BLM crew started the 200-mile drive home in high spirits.

The morning phone call quashed the mood:  The corrals were on fire.  The highway was closed.  Law enforcement was on the scene.

Hours before the wranglers hit the road, members of a cell affiliated with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), an organization connected to the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), had been at work at the corrals.  Under the cover of a dark Sunday night, and using knowledge gained in their earlier surveillance at Litchfield, five ALF members planted four gasoline-fueled firebombs and set simple electronic timers.  They cut several perimeter fences.  In the predawn hours, one of two devices in the huge haystacks detonated, and flames ripped through more than 200 tons of hay and into the dry wooden rafters of the pole barns.

As dawn broke, firefighters from multiple agencies arrived to fight what looked like a routine haystack fire.  They quickly retreated upon discovering three 5-gallon buckets filled with gas and fitted with flares and timers.  The devices were near the office, the hay, and under the personal pickup truck of a BLM employee.

As a wrangler moved through the corrals to keep horses from running through several cut perimeter fences and onto a busy highway, agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and local law enforcement arrived.  Some were on scene; others were in constant phone contact.

A news helicopter from a Sacramento TV station orbited, its pilot unaware that the chopper was spooking the horses that had, after all, been gathered by helicopter.  BLM’s wrangler was “spooked” as well as he hustled to keep the horses from bolting through the gaps in the fences.  California Highway Patrol officers barricaded U.S. Highway 395, a major route linking the Pacific Northwest to Nevada and southern California, and kept the road closed for most of the day while investigators determined how to deal with the incendiary devices.

An answer to who may have set the fire came on November 5 in a “communiqué” from the ELF.  While the date of the fire was incorrect and Litchfield was incorrectly identified, the message said the fire was set and fences cut to free animals from captivity and in opposition to “the Bureau of Land Management’s continued war against the Earth.”

Because it occurred as the nation reeled from the September 11 attacks, the story quickly gained national attention.  It became clear that the Litchfield incident was related to other ELF/ALF actions in the West, including attacks on energy facilities, tree farms, car dealerships, federal government installations, meat packing companies, and other facilities.

The FBI continued its nationwide investigation in an effort dubbed “Operation Backfire.” Indictments on charges ranging from terrorism to arson were handed down in 2005 against a group of conspirators in these attacks, including the five alleged to have attacked Litchfield.

In June 2007, three Litchfield conspirators were sentenced to prison for their roles in the Litchfield arson and other attacks.  In 2011, two other suspects who admitted participating in the Litchfield attack entered guilty pleas to arson attacks that occurred at the University of Washington during the fall of 2001.

Joseph Fontana is the public affairs officer for the BLM’s Northern California District, which stretches from the western edge of the Great Basin to the ancient Redwoods on the California coast.  He worked in community journalism before taking the public affairs position in the BLM.