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Senator sorry for criticizing firefighters

Montana Sen. Conrad Burns apologized Thursday for criticizing a firefighting team for their work on a blaze in the southern part of the state.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sen. Conrad Burns apologized Thursday for criticizing a firefighting team for their work on a blaze in southern Montana, saying his frustration came from a meeting with upset landowners.

Burns confronted members of a Virginia firefighting team at an airport and told them they had done a "poor job," according to a state official's report obtained Thursday.

"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."

Members of the "hotshot" wildfire crew said Burns confronted them in the Billings airport Sunday while they were awaiting a flight home, according to a report by Paula Rosenthal, a state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation employee.

The firefighters said Burns told them they had done a "poor job" and should have listened to the concerns of ranchers, the report said.

"My frustration 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 hotshot crew was battling a 143-square-mile wildfire near Pompeys Pillar National Monument, east of Billings. The blaze started July 12 and was contained last week.

Rosenthal, who prepared her report at the direction of agency supervisors, said she was sent to the airport to meet with Burns after reports of an "altercation."

"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 wrote. "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 "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 that safety is 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 referred questions to spokeswoman JoBeth Brown.

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

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

Bob Harrington, forestry division administrator for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, said Thursday that Rosenthal's conversation with Burns was cordial. However, Harrington said the firefighters reported a less cordial exchange with the senator.

‘Utmost respect’
"I wasn't present for that, nor was Paula, but it is my understanding from discussions that there was some level of lively discussion, shall we say?" Harrington said. He declined to elaborate.

Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, which represents federal firefighters, said he was disappointed Burns confronted the hotshot team.

"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."

Burns, a Republican facing a tough re-election challenge this fall, said Thursday he has since addressed his concerns about the fire's handling to the proper officials.

"Please accept my apology for any hard feelings that my comments may have caused," Burns said. "I have the utmost respect for the job firefighters have done in Montana."