A long-running federal arson case in Oregon escalated dramatically over the last couple of days, as self-proclaimed “militia” took over the headquarters of a wildlife reserve. A group of armed militants, led by the son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, are occupying the building and refusing access. They say they’ll stay there until two convicted arsonists are released and the federal government gives up control of Malheur National Forest.

The Hammond arson case has been a smoldering issue in Burns, Oregon for more than three years. In 2012 local ranchers Dwight and Steve Hammond were each sentenced to a year in jail for multiple counts of arson in the Malheur National Forest, a federal wildlife refuge adjoining their land.

The Hammonds say they were trying to refresh their grazing and kill off invasive plants encroaching from the refuge; the government says they torched part of the reserve to destroy evidence of deer poaching, then started an illegal backburn that endangered a group of firefighters. Wildfires are a serious problem in the forest - 75,000 acres were destroyed in 2015 alone - and authorities take a dim view of firebugs.

With a $400,000 fine paid and their jail time served the Hammonds hoped the matter was done with, but in October 2015, following an appeal by the government, they were told to return to jail. The original offence carried a mandatory five-year minimum that had been ignored by the judge, and federal prosecutors wanted them to serve it.

The decision angered manylocals, and while the Hammonds themselves accepted the verdict and say they just want to do their time and get on with life others want to make a stand.

Supporters, including the Oregon Farm Bureau, have organized petitions and peaceful protests against the resentencing. However yesterday, as around 300 people demonstrated around the Hammond home and the sheriff’s office, a group of armed men broke off from the main demonstration and drove 60 miles to the headquarters of the wildlife reserve.

The group appears to be led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, sons of the Nevada rancher who was involved in his own armed standoff with federal agents in 2014.

It’s not clear right now what the group expect to achieve. Most rights activists andleaders of the self-styled militia movement have distanced themselves from the occupation and Cliven Bundy himself says this was “not exactly what I thought should happen.” Control seems to have been transferred from the Oregon State Police to the FBI, while the militants are blocking the road to the reserve headquarters and armed men are patrolling the area.

Ryan Bundy says they’ll stay there until the Hammonds are released and the government turns over control of the forest to unspecified parties; his brother Ammon has appealed for people to join them. Other statements by the group claim they have 150 men plus a generator and stocks of food, while journalists report seeing “no more than a dozen” gunmen around the area.

Law enforcement so far haven’t tried to approach the group, and at the moment there’s no resolution in sight. The FBI will be keen to avoid either a Waco-style disaster or a media circus like the one which grew around Cliven Bundy, but letting armed extremists seize federal property is a dangerous precedent. There will also be pressure to resolve the standoff before more out of state gunmen filter in to join the group.

The longer this drags on the higher the chances of it ending in a high-profile mess - and media commenters are already drawing comparisons to terrorism.

Image by USDA and used under CC BY 2.0 license

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