Market forces are better than feds at fighting fires

Private landowners and conservation groups have a vested interest in maintaining natural resources. Governments are unaccountable for damage done to our environment and have a terrible track record when it comes to environmental protection.

As of this writing, 79 people have perished in California’s Camp Fire. The town of Paradise has been largely incinerated, leaving many in the town of nearly 27,000 people homeless, and 699 people are still reported missing. Fighting other devastating fires earlier in the year left Cal-Fire’s $443 million annual budget nearly depleted before the Camp Fire started burning on or near federal land in earlier November on the border of Plumas National Forest. Meanwhile, at the other end of the state, the Woolsey Fire has incinerated 97,600 acres. The $50 million home of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian in Calabasas was saved by a private fire-fighting crew probably in the employ of their fire insurance company.

“Rather than envy their relatively good fortune, we should be grateful for the extra fire-fighting resources made possible by insurance companies hoping to minimize fire damage losses,” said Libertarian National Committee Chair Nicholas Sarwark. “Not only did private firefighters save the West/Kardashian home, they also likely saved an entire neighborhood from going up in flames. At the very least, the work done by these extra firefighters provided a measure of relief to public firefighters who were already stretched to the limit.”

According to CBS News, an insurance policy that includes firefighting services costs an extra $2,500 to $8,000 per year, a precaution that can benefit an entire community.

“In a fire-prone city like Calabasas, that’s money well spent, not only for the insured, but also for their neighbors,” Sarwark said.

California’s wildfires can be blamed on many things: dry weather, perhaps abetted by climate change; fire suppression, which leads to an abundance of underbrush and a high concentration of trees competing for moisture; regulatory hurdles that prevent the harvesting of timber; shutting down biomass generators that used to burn brush; residential development in heavily forested areas; downed power lines; lightning; careless campers; arson; fireworks; etc.

Outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown said in a press conference that the state will probably need to spend “hundreds of billions” of dollars to combat the “new abnormal” of climate change. There’s little reason to think, though, that costly government climate initiatives will make much of a difference.

“Whether global climate change is a problem that can be solved by California is a dubious proposition—one year’s worth of emission growth in China is greater than California’s total emissions,” wrote former California legislator Chuck DeVore, who now serves as vice president of national initiatives for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “But the action needed to reduce the state’s growing forest fire threat would be the same regardless of one’s belief in any problems posed by climate change: start managing our forests again.”

The majority of California’s forests, 57 percent, are subject to federal control. It’s no coincidence that there are far fewer cases of destructive wildfire on the 39 percent of forests in California that are privately owned.

“There’s a lesson there,” Sarwark said. “California’s national forests are owned in common by the entire population of the United States. Such highly divided ownership means that no one takes responsibility for making sure forests are managed to maximize all the diverse values of woodlands, such as recreation, timber harvesting, and carbon sequestration. Federal bureaucrats on the other side of the continent aren’t capable of managing these forests in a way that avoids the tragedy of the commons.”

There are several potential approaches to fighting forest wildfires. California operates Cal-Fire at the state level, and cities and counties throughout the state operate their own smaller fire departments. These government-run operations do provide well-trained firefighters who are ready and on call around the clock, but it’s costly to employ these highly paid unionized employees. They spend the majority of their time waiting for a fire to break out, then collect significant overtime pay when disaster actually strikes.

Rural Metro Fire in Scottsdale, Ariz., has pioneered an alternative model. It contracts out fire services on a subscription basis in rural areas or on a contract basis to cities. Rural Metro has been able to reduce the costs of fire protection by keeping its full-time staff of firefighters low. Instead, it uses well trained, on-call “fire wranglers” when fires break out. Rural Metro has provided successful and highly rated fire protection for the past 70 years, and for a lower cost than comparable fire departments run by city governments.

Many smaller cities also face dire financial difficulties because of the high costs of pensions for public officials, including unionized firefighters. Jeff Hewitt, the Libertarian mayor of Calimesa, Calif., found a solution for his city.

“Calimesa had a contract with Riverside County, which had a contract with Cal-Fire to provide fire protection to Calimesa,” Hewitt said. “The city was stuck with two extra layers of administrative costs and defined-benefit pension costs, which threatened municipal bankruptcy. We canceled the contract and set up our own fire department with better equipment, and saved on costs with a non-union shop and a 401(k) pension plan.”

Hewitt ran for a seat on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors this year, and the absentee and provisional ballots from the Nov. 6 election are still being counted. Although earlier reports suggested that his opponent would win, Hewitt is now 266 votes ahead — with thousands of votes left to be counted. He hopes to have the opportunity to solve the county’s pension crisis in a similar manner to his successful work in Calimesa.

Wildfires and other tragedies can best be alleviated or prevented altogether by people cooperating to solve problems rather than pointing fingers of blame. Libertarians understand that people solve problems best when they eliminate government bureaucracy and instead work together freely.