Letters: Should Fire Protection Be a Privilege?

The recent wildfires in California lead readers to debate the implications of private firefighting teams.

A Cal Fire firefighter climbs a ladder by a burning structure while battling the Camp Fire in Paradise, California. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

Kim Kardashian’s Private Firefighters Expose America’s Fault Lines

Earlier this month, according to TMZ, a private firefighting crew reportedly helped save Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s home in Calabasas. The story, Alexis C. Madrigal wrote, “feels uniquely 2018—financial capitalism, inequality, KimYe, the fires of Armageddon.”

Reading the recent article on private firefighting certainly made me think more about the issue of augmenting public services. On many levels, this happens every day and isn’t a bad thing. The government provides a base level of protection for people. Those who want more must pay for it. Social Security is a base-level protection, but most folks agree to “buy” a higher level of protection by saving (paying). Even in systems of socialized medicine, people choose to purchase additional coverage. These people shouldn’t be demonized any more than a private homeowner (or insurance company) in California. Surely these people aren’t saying that their local firefighters are beneath them. They are merely aware that in times of crisis, demand outstrips supply. While financial means undoubtedly drive one’s ability to purchase additional services, it’s not exactly a rich or poor issue. The article shows no evidence that purchasers of additional protection take away any level of basic protections for others. I have no interest in defending Kanye West (or the like), but I also don’t expect him to wait around for fire to engulf his home when he can be proactive about the topic.

Win Quigley
Spotswood, N.J.

I’m a nurse who happens to work in an intensive care unit as well as in private home care. Unsurprisingly, home care with wealthy private clients is where the money lies. The unfortunate truth is that the 1 percent absolutely can pay for better “public” services than anyone else. As a private nurse, I assist people in their home for a variety of reasons. Where I see the greatest divide is monitoring a client who has just had surgery. While the average American is sent home with some basic instructions and a follow-up appointment a week later, wealthier patients have 24/7 monitoring from the comfort of their bed. They are far more likely to catch a complication before it become a serious issue. Having personally dealt with this issue in my family (my own mother recently passed away from ovarian cancer and had nothing but Medicaid and me to support her), I have seen the stark differences in health that money affords. It’s not just extra attention; it’s higher quality of life, better support, alternative therapies, medication management, and ultimately years added.

It sickens me and saddens me. And it’s also how I make a living.

Melissa Zuk
New York, N.Y.

The article asks if this is the beginning of a trend where the wealthy have their own private police, education, health care, etc. The answer is no. This is not the beginning of a trend—that trend began hundreds of years ago. The wealthy have always been able to pay for bodyguards or private security, private doctors from the best hospitals, private schools with elite status, and so on. The private firefighter is just an extension of that because of the location. It’s similar to wealthy businessmen who hired private ships to guard their merchant fleets in the 1700s. Personally, I’m not bothered by this as long as those people continue to pay into the community fund for these services as well. The day that they try to say, “Since I have my own police, I won’t pay for that with my taxes” or “Since I paid for private school, I won’t pay into the state school taxes,” then we will have a problem.

Philip Katz
Langhorne, Pa.

I am a retired firefighter from California with 30 years’ experience. I appreciated the article and felt it presented a fairly balanced perspective, with the brief exception of the implication that contract firefighters are “better” because they aren’t public-service employees. It is my experience that public-service employees are some of the most highly trained and capable responders around. What contract firefighters provide is not better service, but rather additional manpower, as stated by David Torgerson, the president of Wildfire Defense Systems. No one should be bothered if insurance companies hire contractors to protect their clients. It actually frees up public-sector firefighters to protect others’ property. This should be recognized as the win-win situation it is.

Scott Smith
Eagle, Idaho

I appreciate your article on the Kardashians’ mansion being protected by a private fire crew. It does feel, as you put it, uniquely 2018. However, there were a few points made that didn’t fully match up with what I’ve seen on the line, and at fire camps while working for the U.S. Forest Service in eastern Oregon and Washington.

Perhaps it’s ego, but I think the USFS crews are the gold standard in wildland firefighting, followed by various state agencies (most prominently Cal Fire), and followed lastly by contract crews. In both professionalism and experience required to attain positions of authority, the USFS crews are the standard. The claim, then, that the contract crews hired in order to protect certain properties are somehow more elite or adept than agency crews seems misinformed. Instead, it’s possible that because these crews are brought in to protect one property, rather than to triage anything in the potential burn zone, their results appear better than what agency crews produce. While I’ve never interacted with a property-specific crew in person, I can assure you that individual property protection is much simpler than whole fire containment given the weather conditions in Southern California.

In an ideal world, all properties, regardless of owner wealth, would be equally protected; and the triage system, after taking into account defendability, treats no mansion different from any other. However, without those private contract crews, fire management would almost certainly suffer. One of the biggest problems with a large fire popping up in November is that many of the USFS seasonal crew members have already returned to school or been laid off for the winter. Those private crews (and, to some extent, prison crews) are a vital resource that enables fire suppression to ramp up considerably without keeping thousands of extra seasonal hands on payroll weeks after the bulk of the season has passed for a just-in-case scenario. Again, these insurance crews sound like they may be cut from a slightly different cloth, but contract crews in general provide much needed labor securing lines and performing mop-up duties, which in turn allows elite agency crews freedom to respond to the next incident.

In short, these contract crews are not the elite whom the elite hire, but rather bandages that cover scratches on the arm while the doctor performs surgery on the punctured artery. Good in some roles, yes, and certainly necessary moving forward, but they’ll never be at the level of publicly available and publicly funded agency firefighters. Meanwhile, the broader question of what to protect and what to let burn must shift as our understanding of fire ecology and history grows.

Colten Elkin
Logan, Utah

Alexis C. Madrigal replies:

I’m gratified that an article that began with KimYe provoked such interesting thoughts in our readers. I chalk that up mostly to the brilliant historians who lent their expertise to the piece. One thing that I wanted to address is the idea that firefighters hired by insurance companies or other private individuals would somehow be superior to people working for Cal Fire. I certainly did not mean to imply that our public servants were in any way inferior to the other firefighters. All receive training. Some are former firefighters. But it’s not like they are all military mercenaries who were former special forces or something. These are normal people.

And one other small thing: Philip Katz notes that the ability of the wealthy to get the best of everything has deep roots. I agree, of course. What makes it interesting is that, for a short time, this
wasn’t the standard situation in America, and now it may well become so. What changed? I’m reading a pretty fascinating book right now called Age of Fracture, by Daniel T. Rodgers, a professor emeritus at Princeton. Here’s what he thinks happened: “Through a contagion of visions and metaphors, on both the intellectual right and the intellectual left, earlier notions of history and society that stressed solidity, collective institutions, and social circumstances gave way to a more individualized human nature that emphasized choice, agency, performance, and desire.” So, in our age, if you want your own firefighting crew, you have that choice. You purchase different insurance. You fix your own problem. Maybe that doesn’t reduce the democratic urge to work on everyone’s problems through better policy and implementation, but—going on introspection here—it probably does.

Thanks for all your notes.