June 18, 2024

Fighting Fires with Money

The main reason that California’s fires are such a problem is because of the proximity of housing enclaves to the repeat burn zones.  Firefighters do extraordinary work saving homes each and every year in California.  But should they have to?

It might be time to decide.  Fire season seems to be starting early in the Los Angeles area this year.  When/if it does, we’ll all be getting a hefty bill to pay for the damage. 

Firefighters are battling a 300-acre wildfire on Mt. Baldy in the Angeles National Forest.

With winds at 15 to 20 mph and gusting to 60 mph in the area, about 240 firefighters had not brought the blaze under control as of about 2:30 p.m

Last year the cost of fighting fires in San Diego county alone was over $1B.  This is obviously a lot of tax money, some of which has been appropriated from people in other states and sent to subsidize Californians’ unfortunate decisions to build in high-risk areas.

President Bush had this to say last year:

"Americans all across this land care deeply about them," the president said after a Cabinet meeting convened to coordinate federal relief efforts. "We’re concerned about their safety. We’re concerned about their property."

All of which is true.  However, as the state’s population grows, the problem of density, location, and fire risk grows with it.

“We are increasingly building our homes … in fire-prone ecosystems,” says Dominik Kulakowski, adjunct professor of biology at Clark University Graduate School of Geography in Worcester, Mass. Doing that “in many of the forests of the Western US … is like building homes on the side of an active volcano.”

“What once was open space is now residential homes providing fuel to make fires burn with greater intensity,” says Terry McHale of the California Department of Forestry firefighters union. “With so much dryness, so many communities to catch fire, so many fronts to fight, it becomes an almost incredible job.”

I have a few friends in the San Diego area and for their sake I’m glad that the state and federal government intervened and eventually contained the fires that threatened the city.

However, the problem with this sort of government intervention is that it mitigates the risk that Californians took in building their homes and businesses where they build them.  Some would argue that is the entire point, to reduce the burden of people’s mistakes by spreading the risk around using the federal government’s tax-and-spend strategies as a distribution mechanism.  I disagree.

It’s well and good that the federal government is Johnny-on-the-spot to help victims of unforeseeable disasters.  But California’s wildfire problem is well-known, frequently repeated, and, as Dr. Kulakowski points out, Californians are actively creating more potential disasters every year. 

This is negligent behavior by definition.  Handing out federal largesse in this situation is rewarding bad behavior and only makes it more likely that there will be further emergencies to deal with in the future.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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