Harney County fire chief resigns, sides with armed protesters

Chris Briels announces his resignation as Harney County fire chief Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016 during a news conference at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which has been overtaken by a group of armed protesters.

The Harney County fire chief resigned Wednesday because he says he no longer trusts the local government.

Chris Briels stood next Ammon Bundy, the leader of an armed group that has taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, and announced he had turned in his resignation to county Judge Steve Grasty.

Briels accused the Bureau of Land Management of land grabbing and supports the effort to hand over the land to ranchers, but he also feels betrayed by Grasty and other members of the county government, a first sign of fracture among local leaders.

Briels said Grasty confronted him when he questioned why some undercover FBI agents were at the county armory. He said Grasty told him to back off.

Briels is a member of the Community Committee for Public Safety, which is a local group that's expressed interest in taking over for the Bundy protesters to work to reclaim local rancher's land rights when and if they leave.

Briels, who has lived in Harney County since 1978, said his heart is hurt.

"I've been told by Steve to distance myself from this committee of public safety. I've been told that we don't know what we're doing. I've been told that my life is in danger. I've been told all kinds of things. I will not be told what to do," he said. "I have my own mind, and I will use my own mind, not somebody else's."

Briels was fire chief for the city of Burns since 1984. He retired and became the Harney County fire chief in 2010.

The Bundy occupation of the wildlife refuge started Jan. 2 after a community protest to support two local ranchers who were sent back to federal prison for setting fire to public land next to their own land, and to support land rights for ranchers across the country.

Bundy has maintained he wants a peaceful occupation of the refuge. Briels also said Wednesday he wants no violence to come out of the situation.

Laura Cleland, a spokeswoman for the Association of Oregon Counties, said Grasty told her Briels' resignation goes before the county court - the equivalent of a county commission - for approval later this month.

Its next meeting is Jan. 20.

A public meeting for the county safety committee is scheduled for Friday at 7 p.m. The location of the meeting is still to be determined.

This version corrects the spelling of Chris Briels' name.

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