Sen. Conrad Burns criticized a group of firefighters he bumped into at the Billings airport over the weekend, telling them they had done a poor job on a blaze in southern Montana, a state official says in a written report of the encounter. Paula Rosenthal, a state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation employee, wrote the report after being called to the airport to speak with Burns, a Republican seeking re-election this year. Her office had been notified of what she referred to as an “altercation” between Burns and the firefighters, Lee Newspapers reported. Matt Mackowiak, a spokesman for Burns, confirmed that Burns spoke with the firefighters. But Mackowiak said he can’t comment on the conversation because he wasn’t there. He said the senator has been concerned about the loss of personal property in recent wildfires. “Senator Burns takes the responsibility of representing Montanans very seriously, so when he hears from landowners about the tens of thousands of acres lost to wild fires, his heart breaks,” Mackowiak said. He said Burns has been in discussions with top officials at the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management on the issue. The firefighters, members of a hot shot crew from Virginia, had been in Montana battling the Bundy Railroad fire and were at the airport Sunday awaiting flights home. Burns had been in Billings to commemorate the new interpretive center at Pompeys Pillar National Monument.
He saw the firefighters in the airport and approached them, Rosenthal said in her report. He told the firefighters they had “done a poor job” and “should have listened to the ranchers,” Rosenthal wrote. Burns later told Rosenthal he’d met with area ranchers who were frustrated at fire managers. The ranchers had complained that they were preVented or discouraged from helping protect their own property. “The government needs to listen to these ranchers,” the report quotes Burns as saying. Rosenthal said she told Burns that “private citizens were integral to our success, as were (volunteer fire departments), county governments” and others. “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.” The superintendent of the hot shot team, Jeff Koenig, based in Staunton, Va., confirmed his team encountered Burns at the airport, but referred questions to a Forest Service spokeswoman, who did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment today. Dan Jerome, a spokesman for the Forest Service in the agency’s Washington, D.C., office, said the agency has since heard from Burns regarding his concerns. “Essentially, the senator had some issues with a fire, and we heard those,” Jerome said. “He talked to the crew about those. Generally, the place to talk about them is with the Forest Service. Meanwhile, the crew is out fighting fire, and we’re proud of the work they do.” Jerome said the agency is working on addressing Burns’ concerns