Updated and corrected 5:54 p.m. ET
Tens of thousands of firefighters employed by the federal government battled flames last year that scorched more than 8 million acres and caused billions of dollars in damage. And what were the Capitol Hill staffers responsible for their fates doing? Playing games — literally.
Officials with the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, representing thousands of federal firefighters, complained this week to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee after learning that some committee staffers ran an office pool to guess how many acres are burned by wildfires each year.
The contest, run since 2003 by veteran staffer Frank Gladics, was open mostly to Republican staffers on the House and Senate energy and appropriations committees that oversee federal firefighting operations. While no money exchanged hands, Gladics would bequeath the winner one of several hats in his office, including a Wizard hat, a “When Pigs Fly” hat and the mechanical “Holly-Jolly Christmas Hat.”
News of the contest was first reported last week by the environmental news service Grist.org, which quoted the committee’s Republican spokesman, Robert Dillon, as saying the contest was for the benefit of eastern lawmakers less familiar with wildfire season.
“It’s not an official way to educate them,” Dillon said. “It’s a fun, backroom way to do it.”
FWFSA 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.
“How dare they!!” Hamm said in an e-mail. “These men and women put their lives on the line daily, and to be so belittled by something like this? I would be ashamed of myself. Maybe they should trade a ‘cushy’ office chair for a spot on the fireline, and let’s bet how long they last at it.”
McKie Campbell, the committee’s Republican staff director, said the contest has been stopped.
“It will never happen again,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It was in no way indicative of disrespect for any of the folks who put their lives on the line to battle the fires.”
Gladics (who didn’t return requests for comment) used to be a firefighter and “has great respect” for federal firefighters, according to Campbell.
“He’s paid a close attention to what we feel is a poor job that the Forest Service does to fight forest fires,” he said. “Unfortunately, that frustration boiled over into his running this office pool.”
Five federal agencies work to prevent and fight wildfires — the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Forest Service is by far the largest firefighting agency, employing about 25,000 firefighters on a full-time or seasonal basis.
But a chorus of bipartisan lawmakers has called for management and structural reforms at the Forest Service, especially with the way the agency manages an aging fleet of fixed-wing aircraft that dump thousands of gallons of water and flame retardant.
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.”
Gladics apologized to Hamm in an e-mail, saying his actions were insensitive and that as a former wildland crew member he understands the plight of federal firefighters.
Considering his background, Gladics “should know better,” Hamm said.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this report incorrectly said 2011 wildfires caused millions of dollars in damage. At least two major 2011 wildfires caused more than $1 billion in damages.
Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost