Great Falls, MT, USA — U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., grappled with new criticisms Thursday after a state report said he approached a wildland firefighting crew in the Billings airport and told them they’d “done a poor job” battling area blazes.
Paula Rosenthal, a state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation employee, wrote in her report that she went to the airport on Sunday after hearing “that an altercation was occurring between Senator Conrad Burns and a hotshotcrew.”
“In retrospect, I wish I had chosen my words more carefully,” Burns said in a statement issued Thursday night. “My criticism of the way in which the fire was handled should not have been directed at those who were working hard to put it out.”
Burns’ earlier remarks were seized upon both by firefighters “Why should Burns comment to hotshots except to say ‘THANK YOU VERY MUCH?'” was one missive on an Internet message board for firefighters and Democrats, who view Burns’ Senate seat as among those most vulnerable in November elections.
State Democratic Party Chairman Dennis McDonald, a rancher and volunteer firefighter, demanded an apology.
The incident with the hotshot crew, first reported Thursday in Lee Newspapers, happened a day after Burns attended a meeting of ranchers affected by fires near Pompeys Pillar east of Billings. Several of those ranchers were upset at the way the fires were managed.
Burns’ spokesman Matt Mackowiak said that the senator’s conversation with the Virginia hotshot crew was “part of an inquiry (about the fires) that happened at the airport. He has made additional inquiries at senior levels in Washington.”
Bob Harrington of the DNRC, who handled calls about the incident on Thursday, said he’d heard the exchange between Burns and the firefighters was “lively.”
Upon hearing of the exchange, Rosenthal went immediately to the airport to talk with Burns and the crew “to try and get an understanding of what was going on,” he said.
“We typically don’t have these types of exchanges,” Harrington added.
Firefighters around the region were frosted at reports of the incident.
“Why in the backdrop of an airport in Eastern Montana, bash the brave men and women on loan to us, whose only responsibility on the fire was to take orders?” wondered Kurt E. Bushnell, president of the Montana State Firemen’s Association, in a statement about the issue.
Casey Judd, the business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which is an employee association for federal wildland firefighters, called the incident “frustrating.”
“I think it is demoralizing. These are mostly young folks,” he said of the firefighters. “They could be working at some municipality and making a whole heck of a lot more money, and here they are, using hand tools and cutting line and getting blindsided.”
Judd suggested that Burns “should come out and cut some line and spend a week or two away from home, off the clock, and lay in the dirt.”
The association links to a Web site, www.wildlandfire.com, that contained heated comments about the incident Thursday.
Democrats, meanwhile, seized upon the incident as more proof for their contention that Burns, a three-term Republican incumbent, is out of touch with his constituents.
McDonald characterized the remarks as “outrageous insults,” and Burns’ Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jon Tester of Big Sandy, said that “it is the responsibility of every Montanan to support our firefighters and let them do their jobs.”
Burns and Tester are in a tight race and despite his incumbency, Burns’ ratings in various polls remain low.
A Survey USA poll of 600 Montana voters taken in mid-July ranks Burns last among all the senators in terms of net job approval in their home state, with only 37 percent polled liking the job he’s doing, compared to 57 percent who don’t. His Survey USA net approval ranking has hovered around 99 and 100 since January. Last August, he was ranked 92nd out of 100 senators.
Judd suggested that Burns sided with the ranchers because they have more political clout than firefighters.
According to Rosenthal’s report, Burns told the hotshots that “running these fires out of Boise is ridiculous. The government needs to listen to ranchers.”
Boise is the home of the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates wildland firefighting efforts.
Betty Tempero, who ranches near Pompeys Pillar, said she agrees with that assessment.
“We don’t mean to criticize, but landowners know the terrain and know the area” and should be able to give suggestions as to where fires might best be fought, she said.
She and her husband, Clair, lost 75 percent of their grazing land to the fires and are shipping all of their cattle to leased land in Sand Springs, about 150 miles away, she said.