The largest forest fire in Nfld since 1961? Not even close.
“This is the largest fire we’ve seen in Newfoundland since 1961.”
Premier Andrew Furey, live on Facebook, Saturday night from the emergency headquarters at the Gander airport. Slowly reading his prepared text in his suitably dramatic tones not trotted out since COVID days.
Forestry minister on one side of him. Forestry official on the other side. Furey telling people he asked the justice minister to declare a state of emergency.
Those few words about the largest fire were gold for news media. It’s one of those magical phrases that everyone remembered and every reporter and editor repeated in their news stories not just in Newfoundland and Labrador but anywhere the story went.
It’s a magical phrase for news media because it gives some context to the drama playing out in central Newfoundland.
A couple of forest fires have cut off isolated communities on the south coast from the rest of the island. The provincial government has appeared clumsy and slow in its response. Slow to provide emergency help to the people in the area cut off by the fires. Slow to declare a state of emergency. On top of the problems in health care this emergency couldn’t come at a worse time for the people of central Newfoundland.
And for the politicians.
Based on forecasts for wind and weather two or three days in the future for a place where the weather changes by the hour sometimes, the government shifted emergency shelters farther away from the fire than Grand Falls-Windsor over theweekend. Started to evacuate patients in long-term care homes. Told the towns north and south of the fire to break out their emergency plans.
Those words about biggest fire were gold for the politicians too since they helped shift attention away from the emergency response with an implicit explanation for why things were not up to public expectations.
Biggest fire in 61 years. So bad we had to ask Quebec for help. And there were the feds ready to pitch in as well over the weekend, now that the province had finally declared a state of emergency for a region that had been in an emergency state for a while by then.
Magical, golden words.
But not true words.
The map at the top of this column shows the current forest fires in black with reddish bits.
The tan bits are past forest fires.
The lighter tan blobs - those three blobs each bigger than the current pair combined - are all from 1986.
Not the largest forest fires in Newfoundland since 1961.
Not even close.
Just to remind people this is Newfoundland AND Labrador, here’s a map on the same scale of fires near Goose Bay over the past 30 years.
One of the fires in 1986 came within three kilometres of the Grand Falls-Windsor limits. The one this year is still more than 20 kilometres south of the town.
Forestry crews and the firefighting crowd have been doing incredible work fighting these fires.
Health care workers, town officials, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and another army of volunteers have been helping the people at risk from these fires, cut off from medical appointments, caught on vacation or suffering whatever hardship this is causing them.
The higher ups not so much.
The folks doingthe work need to know someone has their back. Getting those extra crews from Quebec is important.
In 1986, GNL had to get help from Quebec AND Saskatchewan. But ya know, that’s what these folks do. That’s what we do. We help them. They help us.
Flipping around in a helicopter, getting snaps with the emergency crews, and posting the pictures to social media.
Declaring the state of emergency.
Sticking cabinet ministers, including the Premier, in front of a camera to recite words someone else wrote for them or information they half remember from a briefing, filtered through handlers who themselves may not understand what is going on.
Putting the men and women who actually do the job in front of a media briefing to give basic, factual information to reporters who will pass basic, factual information on to the rest of us.
The provincial government lost the plot on emergency communications in 2001. They got way stupider in 2008ish when the Pea Seas under Danny Williams decided a cabinet minister who knew frig all about fire fighting was better at explaining fire fighting than the province’s fire commissioner. Fred Hollett, at the time. No relation.
Things went all to hell during Hurricane Igor whenpartisan bullshit, blind ego, and just flat out incompetence reigned. Federal help held up by stupidity at the very top of the provincial government.
Just to remind everyone of where political priorities were: Danny Williams took a helicopter tour of the affected areas with Stephen Harper and right after frigged off to tape a segment for 22 Minutes that made a joke about Williams fighting with Quebec.
Dwight Ball and the provincial government during Snowmaggedon continued the sorry tradition and then Ball and Furey kept it up through COVID.
Now we are at it again.
Maybe this thing about the biggest fire was just a simple mistake.
Fair enough on that front.
But swanning around for photo ops or overly dramatic recitations to a camera is just more of the pathetic same.
We need different.
We need better.
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WestWorld bonus on local political culture
Politics is about how we value things. How we set priorities. We only have so much money and other resources, so we have to figure out what the most important thing is to do and get that done first. We also have to watch out for waste, mistakes, and all the other things that rob us of those important resources.
We figure that out by looking at different perspectives. Supposed to openly look at them. Debate them. Argue over them.
Except around these parts, we don’t do that. We suppress disagreement. We mute criticism. We channel disagreements and manage them.
A good example of the local attitude came with the past 24 hours in response to some comments I made about yet another Premier approaching a public emergency as a venue for publicity.
For the record, my comments come from a fair share of political experience and experience in preparing for and managing communications. I get the arguments on both sides and tend to come down squarely on the side of putting the emergency response first. Everything else comes later. The attaboys for the emergency responders, praise, and all the rest. And getting the Boss’ mug in a shot with the people doing meaningful work is the last of last considerations. Full stop.
The Boss has a job to do just like everyone else. More often than not in an emergency like the one in central Newfoundland, that job isn’t in front of a camera anywhere. It’s making phone calls to people inside government and in governments across Canada and in Ottawa, breaking through internal obstacles to get resources moving, getting people focused on outcomes and not trivia.
Often the best work the Boss can do is about staying out of the way. And keeping others out of the way of the people fighting a fire, delivering food, evacuating the sick, young, and injured.
So, turning up at a rest spot for firefighters, chatting, posing for some photos, and then sending them out on social media is an example of not staying out of the way. In fact, the sending them out on social media thing tells you right away this is not about boosting morale or supporting workers.
For the record, here’s my original comment and here’s some responses. No names but in one case, I did flag the politician as a politician.
Fighting Fires with Photo Ops. Glad-handing trips divert important resources (including people) from emergency response without adding practical value to the job at hand. They are a GNL speciality since 9/11.
Now the replies, generally in sequential order.
First up was the politician:
As this is a very serious situation, I’ve been very reluctant to be critical and as I stated yesterday, I’m glad to see our premier engaged and communicating with the people as he should be. That said, I can see how the pics (particularly the one with all the firefighters) could rub some people the wrong way and just provide fuel (pardon the pun) to the hyper partisans. Think his coms staff should reconsider the approach. Otherwise, certainly support his Govt’s efforts to get this under control.
There was an added bit of info from someone else that the photo was taken during a down time.
The politician came back with this:
I’m certainly not suggesting that [photo op delayed or diverted resources] nor am I making an issue of it as the focus needs to be on the emergency and the people affected by same. Just commenting on Ed’s post and suggesting the pic can rub some people the wrong way.
A reply to the politician:
Agree with you, Paul. Support now, criticize/analyze later. That being said, it's called the Dunderdale Effect.
Another reply to my tweet showed comments from a first responder:
And a last comment
Honestly. This government lovvvvves its photo ops but in this one specific case If it means the b’ys get a break and a little extra stand down time, frig it take a 2nd picture, use the whole memory card.
Every person who replied defended the photo op. The argument that this provided a morale boost is a good one.
But no one questioned why the politician needed to take a picture and spread it around.
When I specifically asked whose interest was served by the picture, this was the politician’s reply:
I would agree that whether they were on duty or not, the optics around taking that group snap and posting it all over social media during the state of emergency will not sit well with some people. Comms staff should understand that.
Again, the focus is entirely on the superficial. The “optics” and the mention of how it would “not sit well with some people.”
All this just shows the extent to which the politicization of every aspect of life - including emergencies – has not merely become normal over the past 20 years but the sort of normal people will openly defend and rationalize.
Not merely defending or rationalising either but adding the condemnation of the notion of criticism itself as inappropriate, at best, or, at worst, trivial: might rub people the wrong way. Might upset the “hyperpartisans.”
This is not about the individuals who made these comments. What I am noting here are the widely held attitudes and beliefs that they represent in our society about politics itself.
Over the past 17 years, I have had variations of these comments tossed at me about pretty well anything I said. What makes these stand out is the people making the comments are not themselves partisans for the crowd running the place at the moment. Used to be only the partisans told me I needed to be nicer once in a while so people would like me better. Or that it must be tiresome being against everything, being a “contrarian.”
In the context of this column what you are seeing here is one of the subtle triggers that come from the comment about the biggest fire since 1961. It sends a message – intentional or not – to folks that this is now one of those times of national priority when everyone must stay quiet, put aside criticism and complaint, and rally behind the leader.
The attitudes and behaviour are so ingrained in people that they do not even need to be conscious they are sending a message or receiving it.
But the result is that a key aspect of how politics is supposed to work - criticising, disagreeing, arguing - gets turned off. The result is that we simply keep doing the same things over and over.
Now look at the fight with Ottawa in 2004. Muskrat Falls. Snowmaggedon. COVID. All obviously big and with them all came the automatic reaction from the public and politicians alike that suppressed any critical comment. In the aftermath, we didn’t dissect them, figure out what went wrong and fix things. We just turned away to other things.
Interestingly, we have a relatively normal kind of emergency, if there is such a thing. In our province, we get fires, snowstorms, and floods regularly. This one is a bit bigger than most but nowhere near the worst by any measure. Yet the simple claim – the worst fire since 1961 – triggered a familiar response, even though the claim was was demonstrably false.
*Bring yourself back online*