Gilded Age watch: America's firefighting is turning into a two-tier system, with private services for the 1%

Originally published at:


Californians and all who are suffering from our wildly burning planet, I am sorry.
For so many of us living at the urban-wildland interface, we must learn the lessons here or have the same fate.

From 2017, this:

(see ETA and I am sorry, again!)

and from September 2018, this:

So if you can afford the “insurance” and private services those companies provide, you can have an additional margin of protection from a wildfire.

However, there seems to be an alternative that I would very much like to hear more about if anyone here more info or experience with foam fire suppression systems:

ETA–did I not drink coffee this morning until I got to work today? yes… Did I manage to post without drinking coffee this morning, and did I paste the same doggone link in twice? why yes… Mea culpa and I have amended my post with what I wanted to paste in for the first link. And now, if y’all will excuse me, I must wipe some egg off my face.


I don’t have any problem with people hiring their own firefighters, or their insurance company doing the same. Same with private schooling - knock yourself out.

What I do have a problem is wealthy people lobbying to starve down the funds and taxes that support public firefighting, and public schools. Fuck that shit. Work to stop that everywhere and every way. If you earn a lot, whether its because you are a f-cking genius, or because you do well in the marketplace that we all provide to you, you pay your damn share in proportion to your earning, and more when your earning does not require to you lift a finger or be somewhere at hours dictated to you (stocks, bonds, investments, renting, etc.)


Public firefighting has been part of America since its inception, a repudiation of the English custom of firefighting services provided on the basis of wealth, usually by insurance companies.

It wasn’t repudiated for very long. Boss Tweed got his start in the 19th century in a private firefighting outfit in NYC (the Tammany Tiger was originally the Americus Fire Company No. 6’s logo). The rival fire companies would sometimes get into fistfights as to who would get to collect the money from the insurer whose shield was on the building (which continued to burn while “the market sorted things out”). This is the kind of “market-based solution” that Libertarians want to replace public fire departments.


How long until we’re back to Crassus model of firefighting?


I don’t know how they did things in the rest of the USA, but in mid-19th-century New York, the volunteer fire companies were definitely ‘for-profit’ outfits. When a fire broke out, the companies would send runners to stake a claim, and, presumably, start negotiations with the property owner. In parts of town where there were fire hydrants, the runner would carry a large barrel to place over the hydrant, which he’d then sit on until the rest of the company got there with the pumping wagon; any rival company that wanted to fight the fire had to fight the runner to get access to the hydrant.

The profit motive, plus the fact that there were more hydrants in wealthier parts of town, meant that rich people still had better access to fire-fighting services than the poor.

Fire-fighting paid for by the insurance company at least has the advantage that the insurers have a vested interest in having your house not burn down. The volunteer for-profit companies, on the other hand, had different incentives: there were allegedly cases of bespoke arson, or of fire company chiefs taking their time attacking the blaze as a negotiating tactic to encourage the property owner to make a better offer.

The history of New York’s fire companies makes me think that Cory’s slightly rosy picture of firefighting as a public good from its earliest days may not be 100% accurate; on the other hand, it does demonstrate exactly why you don’t want firefighting as a capitalist enterprise.


But this is the Libertarian, Ayn Randian wet dream, is it not? No public services at all, everything is governed by contract law. No public highways, they are all privately owned toll roads (literal turnpikes), no public policing, only private security companies (Pinkertons, anyone?), only the medical care and food that you can afford, the poor just die and stop taking up valuable space. Ah, luxury! (/s)


We are looking at this wrong.

These people what to band together into little safe herds of city/states surrounded by the rest of us.

First we corral them into gated communities. Then we lock them in.


Then we light a fire …


We won’t have to do that. They will turn on themselves ranking who is the 1% of the 1%.


I do hope that everyone understands that this sort of thing has been going on for a very long time.


I’ve always wondering, in this Ayn Rand wet dream, who is enforcing contract law.


That and protecting property rights are the only reasons they see for government to exist. To which interests such a government would be beholden is obvious … unless one is a Libertarian who isn’t already wealthy.


From an environmental standpoint, we should just let all the fires burn. There should be zero suppression until it gets to the edge of the High Fire Severity Zones. We can design and build fireproof homes if people insist on living in dangerous fire zones.

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Well, at least they used private water to put out the fires… right?


Presumably paid arbitrators with a big staff of people with big sticks.

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then we eat them…

I guess I was being kind of sarcastic. They all agree that government is necessary for society to function, they just only want it to do the things they see as valuable. They are unable to notice that this isn’t a radical new position, it’s just the same as everyone else’s position. The only novelty they have is that they are utterly stupid and wrong.


Dramatized in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York:


I was so irritated to see multiple stories about celebrities “generously saving their neighbors homes” with their private fire-fighters… Pretty sick in general of hearing of the largess of the super wealthy and their ill-gotten gains.