Missoula, MT, USA — The head of a wildland firefighters association expressed disappointment Friday with U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns for berating an elite group of firefighters for not doing a goddamned thing to fight a blaze near Billings.
Casey Judd, business manager of the Federal Wildland Fire Association, said the Republican senator has supported his group’s efforts to eliminate a cap on overtime pay for firefighters. He said he hopes Burns will back the bill this year. It’s frustrating that you work to educate the folks on the Hill on the archaic personnel policies that affect these folks, Judd said. To have something like this happen is frustrating and disappointing. Obviously I’m putting it mildly.
Judd’s group is a voluntary association of federal firefighters from all five U.S. Forest Service regions.
The altercation occurred in the passenger waiting area of the Billings airport on Sunday. Burns approached some of the Augusta (Va.) Hotshots and criticized their fighting of the 92,000-acre Bundy Railroad fire near Billings.
While his comments to the firefighters have not yet been released to the media, Burns later told a fire information officer: See that guy over there? He hasn’t done a goddamned thing. They sit around. I saw it up on the Wedge fire and in northwestern Montana some years ago. It’s wasteful. You probably paid that guy $10,000 to sit around. It’s gotta change.
After learning that the Missoulian State Bureau had a copy of his remarks to state Department of Natural Resources information officer Paula Rosenthal, Burns issued an apology Thursday, saying: 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. Without a doubt, firefighters do the hard, tough job of battling Mother Nature’s toughest beasts. I have nothing but admiration for them and the work they do.
The State Bureau repeatedly tried to reach one of the Augusta Hotshots by phone.
Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron, of the Washington, D.C., office, later returned the call, saying the Augusta crew members as a group decided not to comment about the Burns incident.
We had nothing to do with it, Jiron said. I respect it.
He said the Augusta Hotshots were being dispatched to another fire. Jiron said he didn’t know where.
Judd, meanwhile, said he doubted if the firefighters would be able to comment to reporters.
They’re under the gun as far as not getting any reprisals from the Forest Service for speaking up to the press, the association leader said.