Staff of Alaska Sen. Murkowski wagered on wildfires

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 13, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Severe criticism from the wildland firefighters association and the parents of a fallen firefighter have committee staffers for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski apologizing for an office pool on how many acres wildland fires will destroy.

The annual pool was run by Frank Gladics, who handles national wildfire issues as a top Republican staffer on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Murkowski, as ranking Republican on the committee, is his boss. The most recent winner of the wildfire office pool is longtime Murkowski aide Chuck Kleeschulte, who she named to the committee in 2009.

The parents of Caleb Hamm, a 24-year-old from Idaho who died battling a wildfire last summer, are expressing outrage over the pool.

"Someone sitting in a cushy chair in an air-conditioned office, taking wagers, while our men and women are out there fighting in the heat and hell of the fires, that bugs me," Lynnette Hamm said on Thursday.

The Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, an advocacy group that represents all branches of federal firefighters, objected in a letter this week to Murkowski.

"Such a 'pool' trivializes the loss of lives and property to wildfires and the heroic effort of our brave federal wildland firefighters each season who risk their own lives to protect our Nation's natural resources, its citizens and their real & personal property from the ravages of wildfires," association president Casey Judd wrote Murkowski.

Robert Dillon, spokesman for the Republicans on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday the pool won't happen again.

"We certainly understand this is in poor taste and it's been stopped," Dillon said. "There was no disrespect meant and we are horrified anybody would think we disrespect the sacrifices the firefighters have made."

Dillon said Murkowski did not know about the pool and none of her personal office staff participated.

Dillon said Gladics started the office pool in 2003 when New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici was his boss as the top Republican on the committee. Murkowski took the position after Domenici retired in 2009 and kept Gladics and others on.

Dillon said Gladics started the pool because of his frustration with Forest Service wildfire management. The issue at the time that it began was the agency's decision to ground aging aircraft.

"Out of the frustration with that decision Frank started a pool on how many acres would burn each year. ... Gladics has been working for many, many years with the Forest Service to improve how they handle forest fires. Unfortunately that frustration boiled over to running this office pool," Dillon said.

Dillon said Gladics, who was a firefighter at one point himself, has apologized to the family of fallen Idaho firefighter Hamm for the pool.

But Hamm's mother, Lynnette, did not sound satisfied. She said Thursday that, given Gladics' background, "the more he should be aware of how that would look."

"What do I think should happen to the staffers? Well, you don't want to print that," she said.

Hamm's father, David, agreed. "It's really a bad joke to us," he said.

The existence of the pool first became public last week when an email announcing the 2011 results was forwarded to an environmental website called grist.org.

Last year 8.7 million acres burned in wildfires across the U.S, the third most on record. The prize for the best guess isn't money, but one of Gladics' joke hats (like a wizard hat or a pig-with-wings hat), or maybe a bobblehead.

The email forwarded to grist.org said the rules include participants being asked in case there's a tie to also guess how many fire-fighting planes will crash, become unusable, or be grounded during the year.

Judd, president of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, said he spoke about the issue Wednesday with McKie Campbell, staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Judd said he doesn't think the staffers involved in the pool meant to be critical of firefighters. He also said his association shares frustration with Forest Service fire management but the pool isn't the way to express it.

"Nobody's more frustrated than the firefighters themselves," he said. "Let's get some work done here."

Committee spokesman Dillon said the pool was a bad idea but he hopes the spotlight will bring more attention to Forest Service management issues.

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