Monday Morning Firefighting


As Glenn Garvin and John Hood, among many others, have detailed in the pages of Reason, natural disasters and bad public policy go together like drought and fire. There will be plenty of government actions to second-guess in the wake of what is being called the worst inferno in modern California history; near the top of my list is the 1968 state law that specifically orders insurance companies to pool together and offer homeowner policies to people who live in high-risk brush fire zones, a non-market last resort enjoyed by 20,000 people, most of whom live in the foothills of Southern California.

Other issues that are making headlines (all collected from today's newspapers by the valuable California-news web site Rough&Tumble): San Diego policy makers are being criticized for having "never invested public funds into a local firefighting air fleet"; four Navy helicopters that have been volunteered to help the San Diego efforts have sat idly on the ground, "caught in a confusing tangle of firefighting bureaucracy and policy"; the Senate is pushing through brush-clearing legislation; the L.A. Times reports that government money spent on fire-prevention in California has fallen disproportionately on the less-hazardous north; the Sacramento Bee avers that the disaster "could change U.S. environmental policy for decades to come"; and, in the story that surprised me the most, some of the state's many prison firefighters are frustrated they can't go out and battle the blaze. Excerpt from the latter:

In fact, of all the state's full-time forest firefighters, more than half come from the trained inmate pool doing time in minimum-security prisons, Heimerich said. Inmates tapped for the fire program are a carefully screened, select group trained by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Most are in prison on drug or theft charges.

You've seen the news photos or footage of firefighters battling the Southern California firestorms, right? Some wear yellow fire gear; others wear orange. Few people realize that the men and women in orange are all inmate-firefighters.


NEXT: Ah, the Eternal Question

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  1. So the firefighters in orange are basically slaves.

  2. Funny how allowing/mandating more fire-prone development patterns doesn’t count as a bad policy around here.

  3. You can level many criticisms at the FAIR plan, but it is far from a “perk.”

  4. anon at 2:44, where in the article did it say that this was mandatory? But yes, if you consider the prisoners who work in the kitchen, mop the floors, or teach high school equivalency classes as slaves, then that view would be consistent.

    “Fighting wildfires requires a quick mind making split-second decisions, and some of these crews are pulling 40-hour shifts. Even the casual listener can grasp the inherent danger there.”

    Sounds like the perfect situation for using Modafinil. They just need to go to the closest Air Force base to get off-label presriptions and a large supply.

  5. anonymous — you’re right, and I’ve changed the wording.

  6. So the firefighters in orange are basically slaves.

    They’re also all kidnap victims. They were taken from their homes and families and are being held against their will by hostile captors. Also, their constitutional right to freedom of association is being egregiously violated, as are their unenumerated rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    Anyway, the prisoners volunteered to do this. They are also, to the best of my knowledge, paid, and certainly they received the tangible benefit of having something “nice” to show the parole board. So, yes, inasmuch as people working voluntarily in exchange for a tangible reward can be “slaves”, they’re slaves.

    Even if none of this were true, and the prisoners were being forced at gunpoint to fight fires for free… why would that be bad, exactly?

  7. Joe, it isn’t funny at all that you imply that the words allowing and mandating are interchangeable in that sentence. I would’ve thought that you’ve been around here long enough to realize that the distinction between allowing and mandating is very important to libertarians. And since when I bought my home 2 years ago I felt absolutely zero pressure to NOT buy my 130 year old house located downtown, you’ll have a hard time convincing me that there are any policies that mandate that we live in sprawl.

  8. It would be bad because of its impact on the labor market.

    And since fighting fires is dangerous, it would be cruel and unusual punishment.

  9. Perhaps “indentured servants” is a more politically correct word than slaves. But the point is still the same. Arrest people who the state obviously considers to be upstanding (enough to be in the firefighter program in the first place) on the bullshit drug war, and make them perform low-cost service to the state in exchange for reducing their already ridiculously high sentences.

    I have first hand experience of this state enslavement. I did 30 days community service for a driving on a suspended license (.09 DUI, first offense), while some of the other fellows I worked with got 5 days community service for firing a gun at a police officer, battery, theft, etc. When it was done, I think the 10-day prison sentence I opted out of would have been the more libertarian approach. I don’t think Friedman had this in mind when he wrote “Free To Choose”.

    Why spend the money to pay a contractor to pick litter up off the streets when you can arrest people and have them do it for free (actually, the arrestee usually pays a stiff fine too, so it’s a money-making scam for the government).

  10. My point, loup-garou, is that it doesn’t much matter, fire safety-wise, how exactly a community ends up getting built like that. If you build it, they will burn. Ergo, building like that is a bad idea, regardless of how that particular urban pattern came to be.

    Cripes, there are more things to talk about in this world than “leave me alone.”

  11. “Cripes, there are more things to talk about in this world than “leave me alone.””


  12. It would be bad because of its impact on the labor market.

    Ooh, a libertarian argument from joe! Somebody take a screenshot.

    Yes, it could potentially have a negative impact on the labor market — except that there is no labor market here. These are government jobs, like “soldier” and “police officer”. Slave-labor firemen don’t compete with private-sector workers.

    I have a problem with using prisoners as cheap manufacturing labor; private industry is harmed by that. But putting a gun to a thief’s head and forcing him to work to save people’s property strikes me as perfectly acceptable, morally and ethically.

    And since fighting fires is dangerous, it would be cruel and unusual punishment.

    Since executing prisoners has been established as NOT being “cruel and unusual punishment”, it’s pretty obvious that you don’t have a leg to stand on when you claim that merely endangering their lives is cruel or unusual. The Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment” is meant to forbid torture. It is not, nor was it ever, meant to forbid fatal or possibly-fatal punishment.

  13. Would all of you please leave me alone

  14. Setting aside the risk to life, couldn’t it be argued that hard-labor in a blast furnace amounts to torture, and therefore meets your cruel and unusual test?

  15. My point, joe, is that it matters a great deal to libertarians whether we are allowed to make our own decisions and suffer the consequences or are forced to do what others think is best. But if it makes you feel better, PLEASE HELP ME!

  16. It does not seem to matter very much at all to you whether or not your decisions have consequences that harm or endanger other people. Building in such a way as to cause/worsen natural disasters = swinging your fist at other people’s noses, whether the choice to build in such a manner is influenced by the government or not.

  17. It’s not that it’s high risk that gets the insurance companies. They love high risk. It means high premiums. It’s that no premium is high enough because they get zillions of claims all at once, and then they’re out of business, with very high probability. They want to stay in business so won’t insure things that will all go boom at once.

  18. Joe: How exactly does building at the edge of the forest “cause / worsen” a natural disaster? I haven’t heard anywhere that the fires were caused by development patterns. The hunter’s flare and arsonists weren’t a byproduct of building homes next to the forest. I suppose it’s arguable that the crisis was “worsened” because those homes were in the path of the fires and needed protection. But what are you proposing? No development of any kind past the edge of the forest? Clustered housing tracts far away from undeveloped land with a great big moat as a buffer zone? Yeah, that’ll work. Then let’s move everyone off the coast and forbid development there because they’re vulnerable to hurricane winds and flooding. Maybe build a big wall instead of a moat. And let’s forbid development in the whole Los Angeles basin because it’s an earthquake zone. And in Oklahoma because it’s a tornado area. You clearly want to blame somebody to ease your impotence in the face of disaster. But your argument offers no reasonable solution.

  19. Just like the Oakland Hills fire and the Malibu fire, fingers will point for the next couple of months and all will be forgotten by Nov 2004 election.

    More money being spent in No Cal? Well, yeah, just in August, there was something like over 160 lightning strike caused fires in Plumas Co alone. Late summer lightning creates all kinds of havoc. If LA, SB, and SD counties had these kinds of weather patterns, I am sure A)no shrub to burn or B)no housing in those areas, or C)there would be more money. However, as the fire ecologist was quoted in the LAT article and I paraphrase, ITS THE ECOLOGY, STUPID!

  20. “San Diego policy makers are being criticized for having “never invested public funds into a local firefighting air fleet”; four Navy helicopters that have been volunteered to help the San Diego efforts have sat idly on the ground, “caught in a confusing tangle of firefighting bureaucracy and policy”; the Senate is pushing through brush-clearing legislation; the L.A. Times reports that government money spent on fire-prevention in California has fallen disproportionately on the less-hazardous north;”

    SiC: Guess how many millions California and feds spend on trained helicopter crews and ground crews to search out and eradicate marijuana grows?

    Admittedly that’s more appealing work to cops who like playing drug soldier.

  21. “Building in such a way as to cause/worsen natural disasters ”

    That’s as patently ridiculous as “Rain follows the plow”. Just because it’s alarmist instead of optimistic doesn’t make it any more truthful.

    Fires happen where fires tend to happen. If you build your house where fires tend to happen, you have to spend more for fire prevention/protection. When government reaches beyond the functions of a co-op, someone’s going to get screwed.

  22. Dan,

    The Supreme Court has ruled that executions are not always cruel and unusual punishment for murderers. I’m pretty sure they’d strike down a law which gave the needle to DUIs and pot dealers.

    Santee Bob and Anon,

    Perhaps the development patterns didn’t make the fire larger, but they certainly made it more expensive and more deadly. If this was “only” wilderness burning, threatening no homes, do you think it would be as big a story?

    OTOH, building within wilderness areas often makes the woodlands around the developed area more vulnerable, by increasing the amount of edge vs interior space. Edge space, by definition, gets more sunlight, and therefore fills up with more highly-flamable brush. I do not know if this is the case in southern California. Check out Richard Foreman’s work if you’re genuinely interested in this topic.

    What I am proposing is a more compact development pattern that 1)takes up less physical space, thus decreasing the chance that a given fire will spread to a developed area, 2) created less highly flammable edge, 3) reduces the number of small patches and corridors scattered within the developed area, which serves to transmit fires across developed land (and has very little ecological value compared to the same acreage of untouched woodlands,) and 4) reduces the area that has to be defended when there is a fire, thus allowing the firefighters to better concentrate their forces.

    Moats. That’s funny.

  23. Of interest, now that the wildfires in B.C. have been taken care of, waterbombers from Quebc and other parts of the GWN are on the way to give your guys a break. Happy to help.

  24. joe,

    How about density’s effect on the impact of big earthquakes? It’s better to be packed into a highrise then, right?

    To the man who’s a hammerer, everything becomes a screed about nails.

  25. Highrises are generally built with very earthquake resistance, at least in this country.

    Where you really don’t want to be is on an elevated highway.

  26. I are a English major.

  27. CA needs Fed cash. What better way to bail out CA than to start a li’l fire and declare it a “distaster area.” (sic)

  28. Nothing new here. People from England used to also kidnap young American men on the high seas and put them to work as “slaves” on British ships.

  29. Assume that:

    * So much forest land wasn’t in the hands of various levels of govt.

    * Anyone building in an ecologically fragile area, be it a flood plain, an earthquake zone, a coastal area visited by hurricanes, or tornado alley, knew going in that they would be liable for full market risk. Yes, they should take out insurance, but it wouldn’t be subsidized, and if one couldn’t afford “confiscatory rates,” then no running to the govt.

    *Services the govt. normally provides, such as water, sewer, in some cases electric, and, yes, fire protection, would have to be privately obtained, whether from a non-profit or for-profit source.

    Now, wouldn’t building patterns near environmentally-sensitive areas be different?

    Now how to get there?


  30. You are right about the water problem, but did even bother to read the last half of my post?

    BTW, I’m adding 5) reducing the area of develompent in close proximity to highly flammable dead trees. By compacting soil, openning trees “used to” being protected by canopy to direct sunlight, and piling fill/yard waste on top of roots, development increases mortality of trees at the edge of the woods.

    Development increases the severity of fires, because edge woodlands are more highly flammable than core/interior woodlands, and development increases the area and length of the edge.

  31. A more compact development scheme would produce less such edge, both around the perimeter of developments, and within them.

    It would also use less water.

  32. Actually, building homes in wilderness areas does make the chance of fire worse. Homes in the wilderness areas means that forestry services can’t do the controlled burns needed to keep the dead wood and brush to reasonable volumes. With homes in the way, the chance that a controlled burn accidentally runs into a home means the foresters have to worry about lawsuits.

    Also, these homes hinder where foresters can cut down dying trees or allow livestock to graze on underbrush.

    Then, you have the whole issue of home placement dictating how the fires will fought. You can’t use firefighting planes to dump 8000 gallons of water or fire retardent onto a tract of homes on the fire line. Homes on top of a hill mean you have to fight a patch of fire you would normally leave to burn.

  33. EMAIL:

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