Saturday, July 25, 2015

Firefighters run towards fires; politicians should stay out of the way

Stephen Harper's forest fire firefighter photo-op gone wrong this week reminded me of the time a campaign I was involved in was faced with a similar fire-related choice.

In the summer election of 2004, I was helping with communications in Skeena-Bulkley Valley on the campaign of our Liberal candidate, Miles Richardson. It was a fun campaign in one of the largest ridings in Canada -- we'd send Miles on the road from our Prince Rupert base and not see him for a week. We were confident we'd dispatch Conservative incumbent Andy Burton, but we didn't expect the NDP's Nathan Cullen to sneak up the middle. I remember Nathan as an friendly, cherry guy who went around saying "I agree with everything Miles just said -- but I'm not a Liberal, so vote for me."

We had a late-campaign rally scheduled for Terrace with Prime Minister Paul Martin, and had been working for a week on the logistics of bussing in supporters from Prince Rupert, Smithers, and communities across the massive riding.

But then Mother Nature threw a wrench in our best-laid plans, and forest fires began to rage in Northern British Columbia. And the Terrace Airport, where Martin, his entourage and the national media were scheduled to fly into, was ground zero for the effort to fight the forest fires.

With the fires still raging the morning of the scheduled rally, the decision of our campaign and the leader's tour team was clear -- we cannot run the risk that Martin flying into Terrace Airport could divert or distract any resources away from the firefighting effort. That had to be the priority.

So on less than half a day's notice, we shifted the rally from Terrace to Prince Rupert, a two-hour drive away. And to complicate matters further, the rally would have to be at the airport -- and Prince Rupert's airport is on an island, accessible from Prince Rupert only by a small ferry that doesn't run as often as you'd like. Still, after a lot of frantic effort we pulled off a successful rally. And, most importantly, the efforts to fight the forest fires were able to continue without interruption.

Then there's Harper, who this week flew right into the flames and diverted resources from the firefighting effort for a hollow photo-op with BC Premier Christy Clark, who also should have known better. A local reporter with guts captured the mood of the locals well:
For a second straight day, firefighting efforts at the Westside Road fire were the backdrop for political photo ops.
Today, several federal politicians stood around waiting, occasionally wiping dirt from their clothing while sweaty, ash-covered, exhausted-looking firefighters surrounded them for the tightly controlled photo opportunity. Helicopters carrying empty buckets buzzed overhead and a steady stream of wildfire fighting aircraft circled prior to the event.
The publication explained to the Huffington Post why it went with the headline "Man in blue suit thanks firefighters" and took the tone it did:
(Harper) chose to make a campaign statement about possibly sharing firefighting costs, but no date, no commitment to put him on the record. We thought the focus should be on the firefighters...We thought it was entirely appropriate for what happened and we are a little surprised other media didn't treat it similarly.
So am I, frankly. Still, the media coverage is besides the point, because the rule should be clear: only firefighters should run towards the fire; politicians should just stay out of the way.

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