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Senator Says Sorry for Criticizing Crew That Faced Montana Fires

Burns was taken to task in return after a chance meeting with a hotshot team from out of state.

July 28, 2006|From the Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. — Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, who is facing a tough reelection challenge this fall, apologized Thursday for criticizing a firefighting team for its work on a blaze in southern Montana, saying his frustration came from a meeting with upset landowners.

Paula Rosenthal, a state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation employee, wrote that members of the hotshot crew said Burns confronted them in the Billings, Mont., airport Sunday while they were awaiting a flight and told them they had done a "poor job" fighting the 92,000-acre Bundy Railroad fire.

"In retrospect, I wish I had chosen my words more carefully," Burns said in a statement. "My criticism of the way the fire was handled should not have been directed at those who were working hard to put it out."

Burns, a Republican, was leaving Billings after attending a ceremony in the area. He complained that the firefighters should have listened to the concerns of area ranchers, the report said.

"My frustrations came from meeting with landowners who were critical of the way the fire was handled," Burns said. "Whatever the reason, I should have simply thanked those who worked hard to put out the fire."

The encounter was first reported Thursday by Lee Enterprises newspapers.

Rosenthal, who was serving as a fire information officer in the Billings area at the time, prepared the report at the direction of agency supervisors. She said she was sent to the airport to meet with Burns after reports of an "altercation" between the firefighters and the senator.

"The toughest part of the conversation was the point where the senator was critical of a firefighter sitting across from us in the gate area," Rosenthal's report reads. "I offered to the senator that our firefighters make around $8 to $12 an hour and time-and-a-half for overtime. He seemed a bit surprised that it wasn't higher."

She said Burns also was concerned and upset about the overall "command and control" system for firefighting efforts and made "several comments about us 'not letting ranchers fight the fire on their own land.' "

She said she responded that landowners were an important part of firefighting, but that safety was always a priority.

"He replied, 'We're fighting a war on terror and we're concerned about safety there too, but we're out there doing it,' " Rosenthal wrote.

The superintendent of the hotshot team, Jeff Koenig, based in Staunton, Va., confirmed his team encountered Burns at the airport, but declined further comment, referring questions to spokeswoman JoBeth Brown.

Brown said members of the team who were present had "chosen not to say anything more about this."

"They're firefighters first -- and they're really just interested in fighting fire," she said.

Matt Mackowiak, a spokesman for Burns, said the senator had since been in discussions with top officials at the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, including Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey, who oversees the Forest Service.

Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Assn., which represents federal firefighters, said he was disappointed Burns chose to confront the hotshot team. An Internet bulletin board for firefighters quickly filled Thursday with postings critical of Burns.

"We have expressed our support for him in the past," Judd said. "But to make a point of blistering a bunch of hotshots -- it's really disconcerting."

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