Montana Sen. Conrad Burns spotlights a bad burn policy


Conrad Burns, the third-term Republican senator from Montana, may have done Westerners a backhanded favor when he cornered firefighters in the Billings airport and berated them for the job they did on an eastern Montana wildfire.

Burns reportedly confronted members of the Augusta Hotshots last month as they were waiting for their flight back home to Virginia. Based on reports from ranchers in the area, Burns told the firefighters they had done a "piss-poor job." Burns pointed at one firefighter and told Montana state employee Paula Rosenthal, "See that guy over there? He hasn't done a God-damned thing. ... You probably paid that guy $10,000 to sit around. It's gotta change."

When the news broke, I marveled at the gall of a man who has acknowledged receiving more money — $137,000 — from tainted lobbyist Jack Abramoff than any other member of Congress. Yet he can still seem publicly outraged by sooty, blistered laborers raking in less than $20 an hour.

But piling on to Burns' myopic judgment is too easy. The good senator stumbled upon an opening for us all to tackle a much more difficult subject, which is our country's approach to wildland fire.

Ecologists overwhelmingly agree that a century of trying to stamp out every wildfire has left us with national forests that are alarmingly dense, unhealthy and more dangerous than ever. And we've done it all at great expense. The Government Accountability Office reports that since 2000, the federal government has averaged spending more than $1 billion per year to suppress wildfires. In the 10-year time period between 1994 and 2004, 40 firefighters were killed by fire or falling snags, and 49 aircrew members lost their lives fighting fire. Dozens of others died from heart attack, heat stroke and vehicle accidents in the line of fire duty. Only this month, a helicopter pilot and three firefighters perished in a crash on a fire near McCall, Idaho. Waging an all-out war against wildfire inflicts heavy casualties.

"It's gotta change," as Conrad Burns would say, and there are signs that "it" — fire policy — might be changing. Last year, fire was allowed to resume its natural role in more than 430 fires throughout the country, the highest number since the federal government officially endorsed the practice in 1995. Many Western wildfires don't pose an immediate danger to communities or private property, and the benefits of clearing out underbrush and chokingly dense forests are evident. The costs are significantly lower than for those fires that are actively suppressed, both in dollars and lives. But the wildland fire-use policy, as it is termed, is still not without its risks or its critics, who fear what fire can do to ever-closer housing developments if a blaze gets out of control.

One way lobbyists and special interest groups help sway public policy is to treat our U.S. senators and representatives and their staff to fact-finding trips. The telecommunications and broadcasting industries regularly send Sen. Burns to Las Vegas, for instance, to find facts of one sort or another. Maybe one of these altruistic companies could sponsor a tour of some of the wildland firefighting community's key locales. A suggested itinerary would include a junket to the following:

Glenwood Springs, Colo., to hike the 1.5-mile steep and rocky Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail, where 14 firefighters perished in the South Canyon Fire of 1994.

The Chewuch River Valley west of Winthrop, Wash., where a rock wall features photographs of the four young firefighters who died in the 2001 Thirtymile Fire.

Indianola Helibase north of Salmon, Idaho, to see two bronze statues that memorialize Jeff Allen and Shane Heath, both consumed by the 2003 Cramer Fire.

Even without going on my tour, I note that Sen. Burns came to his senses and issued an apology for his harsh treatment of the Augusta Hotshots. Much like the actor Mel Gibson, he allowed that "In retrospect, I should have chosen my words more carefully." He added that he should have "simply thanked those who worked hard to put out the fire."

But instead of a public relations apology in an election year, we need leaders who are willing to change a fire policy that stifles our nation's forests and endangers firefighters year after year. If Sen. Burns' thoughtless outburst affords us the opportunity to reflect on what is really at stake with our national fire policy, we should simply thank him for his hard work.

Gina Knudson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Sep 04, 2006 10:38 AM

I detailed for a month with the Augusta Hotshots in 2004. I know a lot of the crew personally. In spite of opinions on how to fix firefighting ( and it definitely needs fixing), I could not help but feel my anger and outrage boil at the comments from Conrad Burns. He has absolutely no idea the kind of work Shots do. The vast majority of these folks are in their early 20's, are GS 4's and 5's ($12-15 per hour), work 12 -14 hour days and many do not even have health insurance (they are hired seasonally). They travel away from home for months at a time and take fierce pride in thier work and work ethic. Burns is a disgrace to the great state of Montana.

Sep 05, 2006 12:45 PM

One of the reasons we fight wildfires is because people have been allowed to build houses in forested areas...or too near forested areas. Somehow those people always expect that someone will be willing to lay down their life to protect "their" property. We need to protect more areas from building...or, alternatively, let people know that if they build in a wilderness area/near wilderness area, they cannot expect any help in protecting and/or rebuilding. Perhaps some insurance company would like to make megabucks by issuing "wildfire" policies for these homeowners, much like expensive flood insurance for those who insist on rebuilding over and over in flood plains.

Sep 06, 2006 10:17 AM

Right On!... kinda.

We waste billions of dollars each year on fire suppression. But we're also wasting hundreds of millions of dollars each year supposedly 'fixing' the mythical 100 years of fire suppression... tree choked forests thing.

While it can be demonstrated that fire suppression (and clear cutting with replacement monoculture plantations of sickly, "merchantable" species) has had an effect in 'short fire return interval' forest types, huge amounts of the west are host to long fire return interval 'disturbance regime' forests such as lodgepole pine, most true firs and spruces. We've simply not been suppressing fire long enough to modify most of these 'tree choked' forests which are normally subject to (and dependent upon) stand replacement fire.

The bill of goods sold to the public is that all forests are (or should be) short fire return stands subject to 'low intensity cleansing' fire... and that any sort of broad scale stand replacement fire is BAD and CATASTROPHIC and is worthy of spending a gazillion dollars and killing a bunch of firefighters.

I suppose that, as national fire policy declares, if your house is in the way of a 'catastrophic' fire (mostly because you sited it, built it, and maintained the area around it with absolutely no regard for the fire which played across that land for eons), we need to save you from your stupidity (or at best, ignorance).

If we really were concerned about spending money wisely and saving the lives of firefighters (and other rescuers), we'd let folks who build flammable structures in flammable environments, non floating structures below sea or flood level, unstable structures on shaky ground, or trophy homes on eroding coastal bluffs go down in flames, deep water, temblor or surf. Putting up a simple monument to the inevitable results of selfish personal desire, developmental avarice and governmental permit complicity would be way cheaper (and perhaps more instructive) than repeatedly trying to "save" folks from bad choices made in the real world.

Yep, prevention would be the ecological equivalent of forcing folks to wear seatbelts in cars or helmits on motorcycles and bicycles. We'd just say "No, we're not going to let you do something that's obviously stupid... and have to clean up your mess afterwards at our expense." We'd refuse to let folks trash the woods to make them 'fire safe.' We'd refuse to let folks destroy river and coastal flood plains and barrier environments to make them 'flood proof.' Et Cetera ad nausem...

Meanwhile, I'll keep dispatching good people to their deaths to perpetuate a politically acceptable mythology.

Woody Hesselbarth

Fort Collins, CO

Sep 06, 2006 10:19 AM

Woody, from Fort Collins, would save me from my “stupidity”. I’m “stupid because I live in a “flammable structure in a flammable environment.” Is it really stupid to live where I can go out at night and see the Milky Way, where I am listening right now to elk bugling in the meadow? Is it stupid to live in a community where neighbors know each other and never hesitate to help when help is needed? Is it stupid to live where the air is not yet polluted, and the water runs clear and cold and untreated from the tap? Is it stupid to live in a community where you can go away for days and feel no need to even lock the door? Is it stupid to live in an area where the lakes and fishing banks are clean and clear of trash because local volunteers clean up after the tourists go back to their polluted air and gridlocked commutes.

Mr. Woody uses the words “simple” and “simply” in his tirade about the stupidy of folks who see the universe from a different perspective than his own. We might say that he can’t see the forest for the trees, and that might just be because he’s tried too hard to keep things simple. Probably wouldn’t be nice to say “simple minded.”

Maybe he doesn’t know that some of us live in communities that had post offices before the “national forest” came into being. Maybe he doesn’t know that our first line of defense in protecting our own homes is the careful clearing and thinning of trees and brush on our own properties. He probably doesn’t know that fire departments in this neck of the woods are manned, and womaned, by local volunteers.

We live close to a big Indian reservation. And on the reservation the forests are in great shape, much healthier than adjoining national forest. The Indians have managed their part of the forest without being handcuffed by the Forest Service, which is turn is currently handcuffed by over zealous environmental groups. Local loggers can’t get permits to harvest trees that really need to come out of the national forest, to improve the health of the forest. These trees could be cleared at no cost to the taxpayer, and if this kind of logging would be permitted, local economies would be benefit.

So, forest management isn’t simple. And those of us who live in or near the forest aren’t stupid. We fully understand the risks, and appreciate the benefits. And we understand that somebody else may see things from a different perspective.

The real stupidity is to try to solve a huge, very complex problem with tirades and simple know-it-all solutions.