Montana U.S. Sen. Max Baucus rolled up his sleeves and joined the labor pool on Monday, toiling alongside Missoula firefighters for a day-in-the-life primer that included a wildland fire training drill.
Baucus was in town for one of his signature "work days," wherein the senior senator leagues together with a salt-of-the-earth segment of the state's work force. The senator said he began the "work days" more than 16 years ago in an effort to more closely identify with the challenges that everyday Montanans face.
"One of the great privileges of my job is to get out here and be with the people," Baucus said during a break from Monday's classroom training at Missoula Fire Station No. 3. "This morning they had me mopping floors, scrubbing tables and doing simulations."
After a morning of academics and elbow grease, Baucus donned a wildland fire jacket and participated in a training drill, where he did more than just masquerade as one of Missoula's finest.
Wearing a "Junior Firefighter" badge, Baucus loped up a hill at Wapikiya Park, dragging a heavy length of firehose up the steep pitch while engine crews simulated an emergency response to a half-acre grass fire. The "fire" was marked by yellow streamers spread across the hillside, but the manpower and equipment deployed was the real deal, and crews were dispatched just as they would be on an actual emergency call.
Baucus participates in the work days every month or so, said spokesman Ty Matsdorf, and his resume resembles that of the Village People more than it does a politician's. He's shadowed police officers, driven 18-wheelers, worked in a pharmacy and built houses with a construction crew.
The senator says the workaday experiences give him valuable insight into the lives of his constituents, and also provides an opportunity to clear his head of the clutter of Washington politicking.
"The best part of being home is cleaning out the cobwebs and getting out from behind the desk," Baucus said.
Last month, Baucus spent a day chopping pepperoni and cleaning the kitchen at MacKenzie River Pizza in Billings.
"He got good marks on cleanup, but they dinged him a little bit for putting too much garlic on the lodgepoles," Matsdorf said of the pizza franchise's signature breadsticks.
Members of the Missoula Fire Department concurred that Baucus didn't seem wary of getting his hands dirty, and he didn't hesitate to lend a hand Monday morning, even spearheading some of the more pedestrian chores that sometimes go neglected around the 39th Street fire station.
"Tell you what, our upstairs kitchen area hasn't been that clean in months. He busted in and cleaned it good," said firefighter Larry Focher.
For his part, Baucus was impressed by what he saw in the fire crews, both in their expertise as emergency responders and their grasp of the complex health reform bill the senator helped write.
"We visited about the bill during a coffee break and they told me how they thought the president was doing," he said.
"These guys know what they're doing, I can tell you that," Baucus said as the crews packed up their equipment at the end of the training drill.
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at 523-5264 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.