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 [email protected].

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