Remember former Montana Senator Conrad Burn’s weird negative obsession with and hatred for firefighters? Seems like that’s an endemic attitude in Burns’ old committee. Back in the day, Burns was Vice Chair of the subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. On the subcommittee staff was one Frank Gladics.
Gladics is still there, and we’re just learning what he’s been up to since the good old days with Burns.
Last summer, wildfires sped by drought turned large chunks of Texas into a moonscape. Nationally, 2011 saw the third worst wildfire season in the United States since 1960: More than 8.7 million acres of land burned.
It’s the job of congressional staffers working on energy and natural resources issues to know facts like this. But some of them have a more urgent and perverse interest in this particular statistic: They’re participants in a macabre annual office pool in which they try to predict how many acres of U.S. land will burn in wildfires.
Frank Gladics, a professional staffer on the Republican side of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, runs the contest. On Tuesday he sent out 2011′s results in an email that was perhaps forwarded a little too widely. (Grist managed to obtain a copy, after all.) Participants in 2011 ranged from lowly legislative aides to powerful staffers, like Bruce Evans, the Republican staff director for the Senate Appropriations Committee. The entrants Grist identified all worked on the Senate side of the Hill.
A morbid version of a jellybean-counting contest, the pool asks staffers to guess the number of acres that will burn each year; guesses that exceed the actual number, as reported in the National Interagency Fire Center Situation Report [PDF], are disqualified. [...]
In case there’s a tie, participants are also asked to guess how many fire-fighting planes (“fixed-wing, heavy-slurry aircraft”) will crash, become unusable, or be grounded, and how many weeks those aircraft will be out of service.
The spokesman for the Committee, Robert Dillon, says that this contest wasn’t in any way meant to be disrespectful of the firefighters who are pretty much putting their lives on the line every time they go up in one of those rickety planes or face a wildfire on the line. It’s meant instead for the edification of eastern lawmakers who aren’t as experienced in wildfire. “It’s not an official way to educate them,” Dillon said. “It’s a fun, backroom way to do it.”
Not everybody sees the fun in it.
[Federal Wildland Fire Service Association] President Casey Judd said Wednesday that the contest “was somewhat of a shot to the gut.”
“While we’ve been burying wildland firefighters and aviation folks and citizens, this odd pool has been going on supposedly out of frustration with the U.S. Forest Service,” Judd said. “Well, let’s fix it.”
Lynnette Hamm, who first alerted The Federal Eye to news of the office pool, called the contest “truly appalling.” Her son, Caleb Hamm, 24, died last July while fighting a wildfire with a Bureau of Land Management Hot Shot crew, one of dozens of firefighters — local, state and federal — who die in blazes each year.
In addition to the “educational” value of the contest, the committee’s staff director McKie Campbell says that it’s a reflection of Gladics ongoing frustration with the “poor job that the Forest Service does to fight forest fires,” and that “that frustration boiled over into his running this office pool.”
Judd said he understands that the office pool wasn’t meant to disparage federal firefighters, but added: “If both sides of the aisle are frustrated, why don’t we try to fix the problems? We provide them with all of this data and information, everybody nods their head, and yet the Forest Service continues to be who it is and what it does.”
Um, because Republican lawmakers aren’t interested in fixing problems? They weren’t when they were in control of the Senate back in Burns’ day, and they aren’t now when they can block the body from doing anything productive. The Forest Service struggles with an aging fleet of planes and a Congress that fights over providing disaster relief, and Republicans turn it into a stupid game.