Opinion

Burn, burn, burn, burn, burn the rich

FiresWildfiresDisasters and AccidentsPoliticsAmerican International GroupVehiclesRegional Authority

Amid all the heartache and woe of the previous 10 days in scorched Southern California, I learned a marvelous new fact: For a lousy $995, you can buy a portable gizmo that sprays the very same fire-retardant goo that's used by the U.S. Forest Service and other front-line firefighters. It's called Phos-Chek, it's made right here in Ontario, and if you encircle your property with the stuff any rampaging brush fire will be stopped dead in its tracks.

For 10 times the price, you can install a sort of Phos-Chek sprinkler system, with remote control capabilities. Or, if you're not really the DIY type, and you're willing to pay high premiums in exchange for greater peace of mind living in the Wildland-Urban Interface, you can purchase the insurance carrier American International Group's Wildfire Protection Unit plan. AIG contractors will conduct a thorough Phos-Chekking at the beginning of fire season, assess the property for vulnerability, install a satellite tracking system, and during an emergency send out a truck and a crew for another dousing of fire retardant.

As of late last week, an AIG contractor told Bloomberg News, "we've had somewhere betwen six and 10 saves," including on at least one house lucky enough to be next door to an AIG client.

You would think that the cheap availability of potent fire retardant, and the creation of supplementary firefighting capability — with costs borne entirely by the homeowners who choose to live in fire zones, instead of everyday taxpayers — would be a cause for at least mild enthusiasm. Instead, it was greeted with howls of class warfare.

Liberal journalist/historian Rick Perlstein called it "a sickening indication about how the conservative mania for privatization is beginning to create two Americas: One that is protected from fires, and one that is not." (Never mind that no one within shouting distance of power or influence is calling for the privatization of fire departments.) In an L.A. Times article filled with such loaded phrases as "mansions of the moneyed," lefty social critic Naomi Klein decried supplemental fire insurance as "disaster apartheid." (Never mind that apartheid was imposed by a federal government on unwilling victims based on race, whereas paid-for emergency assistance imposes nothing negative — and can even lead to positive outcomes, such as a saved house — on the comparative have-nots in this case, most of whom are affluent homeowners who can certainly afford $995 for a tub of Phos-Chek.)

Nation contributor Chris Hayes warned that the trend reflected a desire to go back to the dark days of the 19th century, when "most fire-fighting was done by private companies," even though no one had suggested such a thing. MSN moneyblogger Jon Markman referred to the emergency response units as (shudder) "independent fire militias." Local lefty blogger Bob Morris maintained that they were "just like Blackwater ... with their heavily armed guards in the aftermath of Katrina." (Blackwater was contracted by the Department of Homeland Security; AIG's fire teams were not.) A blogger at Byzantine Ruins made the bizarre claim that the supplemental Phos-Chek sprayers were "wast[ing] firefighting resources."

This kind of faulty zero-sum logic — assuming that there is only one pie of firefighting resources, and that the presence of insurance-company firefighters somehow swallows an ever-larger piece at the expense of public efforts — was not just evident in blogs you've never heard of. Consider the juxtaposition in this paragraph of The Times' own article:

Others say that it's just another way for the wealthy to buy their way around cash-strapped, understaffed public services. Firefighters across the region have complained this week that they simply did not have enough trucks, helicopters and airplanes.

Did AIG's emergency squads commandeer precious resources? According to Bloomberg, the Wildfire Protection Unit — which covers the Western United States — has a grand total of six trucks. Meanwhile, scores of available and military aircraft sat idle while San Diego burned, and only a single DC-10 has made water-drops, because of bureaucratic bungling by government.

There aren't any attractive explanations for why people are outraged by others willing to pay for extra fire protection. (For the gamest attempt, involving serial abuses of the Transitive Property, try this firedoglake screed titled "How Grover Norquist, the Club for Greed, and Arnold Let SoCal Burn.") There is a perfectly valid argument against the federal government subsidizing insurance for affluent people to build mansions in untenable fire zones, but this ain't it. In fact, it's the opposite -- bashing individuals for finally ponying up their fair share for risking the Santa Anas in canyon country.

Almost all of the animus boils down to hating the rich, seeing conservative plots behind everything and/or yearning openly for Soviet-style central planning. "How can a state that was a national disaster area not commandeer resources like that to meet collective needs?" asks our Byzantine friend. "I'm sorry, I just don't think you have the right to private protection in this circumstance, and I think letting this happen creates tremendous social damage and alienation."

In the Washington Post, Janet Fitch saw a saw a Bushian plot to restore the Katrina-wrecked reputation of the federal government: "Let's just say, quite delicately, that many of the victims of this fire situation, especially in the San Diego area, live on the correct side of the socioeconomic spectrum," Fitch wrote. "They have plastic, they have cars, they have choices. Not to mention that many hold a rightward position in party orientation. Exactly the type of person who will remember what went down when fire season ends and fundraising season begins."

Leaving aside the fact that plastic is now wildly available in the lowlands too, I much prefer the unprettified socialism of Workers World: "The differences between the growing rich and the poor, between the working class and the bourgeoisie are becoming more evident every day," Teresa Gutierrez wrote last week. "This obscene difference in class society will result in tumultuous struggles. The victims of Katrina and Rita will unite with the immigrants of Westlake and all decent minded people will rise up to reclaim justice. What will burn to a crisp then is not Southern California but capitalism."

Time to stock up on Phos-Chek!

Matt Welch is assistant editorial page editor; click here to read more of his Opinion Daily columns. Send us your thoughts at opinion@latimes.com.

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