Senate Staff Play Bizarre Office Pool on Wildfires

by Sarah Laskow, reposted from Grist

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.

At best, this little stunt could be excused as gallows humor — a peculiar inside-the-Beltway bonding ritual for disaster wonks. Since wildfires level people’s homes, imperil both residents and firefighters, and serve as a barometer for climate-change-driven havoc, the annual game might also simply be tone-deaf, tasteless, and heartless.

According to rules laid out in the email, the contest is open to committee and personal office staff who cover energy and natural resources issues, as well as appropriations staff, because “you never want to leave them out — you might need a rider from hell someday.” The prize: one of Gladics’ hats. (Available: “the Wizard Hat; the When Pigs Fly Hat; or the mechanical Holly-Jolly Christmas Hat.”)

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 tie-breaker prize? “Not one, but both” of Gladics’ elephant-head squeeze toys (with eyes that bulge when pressed).

The competition, which has been going on since 2003, is largely a Republican affair, although at least a couple of personal office staff of Democrats have thrown their hats in, too. This year’s winner was Chuck Kleeshulte, a professional staff member on the Senate energy committee who has also worked in the personal office of ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Asked about the poll, Robert Dillon, the minority communications director for the energy committee, said that it “highlights our concern with Forest Service’s treatment of public land.”

“We’ve got more and more Eastern senators on the committee,” he said, explaining that the contest is a way to enlighten those representative’s staff members, who might not be as familiar with the fire problems that plague the West.

“It’s not an official way to educate them,” Dillon said. “It’s a fun, backroom way to do it.”

The contest’s tongue-in-cheek tone doesn’t exactly match the solemn note committee members strike when they address the public. At a June 2011 hearing on wildfire management, Gladics’ boss, Sen. Murkowski, said of wildfires, “You worry about these things. You worry about what is happening within any given fire season, but to those who have lost property, those who have been threatened, we are very concerned.”

Murkowski has been critical of the Forest Service’s firefighting policy, and both her frustrations and her staffers’ contest trace their origins to 2003, when a fleet of aging firefighting aircraft was taken out of service. (These were planes similar to the heavy-slurry aircraft featured in Gladics’ tiebreaker question.) Since then, the Forest Service has been looking for a way to acquire large aircraft to replace the decommissioned fleet; Murkowski wants the agency to move more quickly and be more flexible.

Gladics, who works on wildfire issues, told firefighters as much at a conference last May: “Go back and look at alternate aircraft, including water-scooping aircraft. Our forests, the resources and communities can’t wait another 10 years while you wait for the existing fleet to become inoperable in hopes Congress will be forced to buy you that Ferrari you want.”

But the roulette wheel of congressional funding isn’t the largest challenge that’s facing wildland firefighters. As climate change worsens, fires like those that scorched Texas this year will multiply. Fire seasons are growing longer as snowpacks melt earlier, and drier conditions drive more fires, faster.

Gladics promised in his email that next year’s contest would start earlier than usual. As his fellow staffers heed his advice to “start sharpening your pencils and reading up on those statistic books from your college courses,” perhaps they will also consider the impact of climate change on the predictions they will make. But if they really want to raise awareness about the threat of wildfires, they should also probably find a way to do so that doesn’t involve squeeze toys.

Sarah Laskow is a reporter based in New York City who covers environment, energy, and sustainability issues, among other things. Follow her on Twitter. This piece was originally published at Grist.
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14 Responses to Senate Staff Play Bizarre Office Pool on Wildfires

  1. Colorado Bob says:

    The latest developments came after Chilean President Sebastian Pinera invoked an anti-terror law to pursue those responsible for the deadly blaze that killed the firefighters.

    “Deliberate fires are terrorist crimes,” Mr Pinera said………… Across central and southern Chile, wildfires have burned about 500sq km (190 square miles) of forest and grassland in recent days.

  2. Gail Zawacki says:

    Forest fires are also worsening because pollution is causing trees and other vegetation to die back. This story makes me sick. Why don’t they bet on how many kids will contract asthma or cancer this year from ozone? That would be fun and raise awareness, right?

  3. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Not at all tasteful, sure. But the list of guesses and winners could be informative, a window on what they really think.

    Let’s follow the logic of ““It’s not an official way to educate them,” Dillon said. “It’s a fun, backroom way to do it.”” This is a little bit of gold, think about it.

  4. Colorado Bob says:

    The death toll of the Great Texas Drought, will scalp the trees from the Earth from Tucson to Baton Rouge . From Wichita to Monterey. We are watching trees being peeled off the Earth like a potato.

    Chile –
    MODIS – January 9, 2012 – Fires in central Chile

    Note the height of these fires . 190 sq miles burnt so far.

  5. Colorado Bob says:

    I saw a comment a few days ago from Austin , the writer was reporting the condition of his heating and cooling filters.

    They were black. No word on if he was a smoker.

  6. Colorado Bob says:

    In human terms people will bet on anything.

    Betting on aircraft crashing during wild fires, is beyond the pale.

  7. adelady says:

    Beyond the pale? Absolutely.

    I half understand that the poll might be used as a tool to get people to think about the coming year’s fire risks.

    Knowing that firefighters may die is one thing. Betting that highly skilled pilots may lose their battle against such odds is several steps too far.

  8. John Tucker says:

    Seems like they could find a better way to spend their time – especially as their bosses, that is no politicians, to me, seems to show a appreciable level of competence when it comes to discussing climate and climate extremes.

    Instead they feel they dont need to demonstrate the least amount of empathy and indeed exhibit the opposite as a joke.

    Arrogant Snots.

  9. _Flin_ says:

    So what?!

    The difference between this and betting on the arctic sea ice minimum is only marginal.

    Newsflash: beltway insiders are cynical.
    Big news, indeed (irony).

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I understand that some of you regard this as outrageous but I would urge you all to understand how and why this sort of humour is brought into play.

    I don’t know if any of you have worked in or with hospitals, mental hospitals, the cops, fire brigades or any of the services that have to confront tragedies or their consequences on a regular basis, but if you have, you will have experienced black humour like you wouldn’t believe.

    I have also worked with public service departments where the normal operating dynamics were so competitive and destructive, to the point of mental illness and suicide, that the introduction of such a game would be seen as a way of getting people working together again, regardless of the fact that it has nothing to do with furthering the work of the dept.

    Humour is one of the most powerful defences human beings have available in the face of adversity. I know this example doesn’t look good in today’s social environment but it is an essential tool for our survival as it is infectious, promotes solidarity and restores sanity and strength for another day.

    Without the life enhancing properties of humour, we die depressed and alone. Please understand, and also understand that now is the time that we should be promoting structures and methods that produce cooperation and motivation to meet our shared goals, ME

  11. Gail Zawacki says:

    I’ve seen some pretty ghoulish EMT humor which I can understand – humor helps buffer tragedy. But the people betting aren’t personally experiencing trauma for which they need humor to dispel. They are insulated, pampered, callous bureaucrats. This is the equivalent of employees at Health and Human Services betting about how many kids will go hungry this year.

    Not. Funny.

  12. John Tucker says:

    Agreed and well put. And if they need a “game” like that to “educate” them and keep them informed they really dont need to be in Washington in a leadership position.

    Realistically as people are getting hurt, and the ways fires are fought it is close to being like officers at the pentagon betting on battle success and troop casualties.

    Everyone of them should have known it was wrong and grossly inappropriate too.

  13. Steve Funk says:

    If someone wants to win this contest, they havew to estimate drought. To estimate drought, they need to realize that it is in some way related to climate change. This is not at all a bad exercise for Republicans.

  14. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Gail and John, you have made a snap value judgement about people and circumstances you probably know nothing about. Why?

    Who did they hurt? The tax payer, for wasting a few minutes of working time? But if this activity promotes harmony and more effective working, it is probably a benefit to the tax payer.

    Attempts to impose value or belief systems on others has been a scourge of our cultures in recent history and always ends badly, ME