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 (hcn.org). She is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...