Who killed the firefighters?

Riverside County has put a $100,000 price on the heads of the arsonist[s] who got beered up and set a fire that has killed four or five firefighters (one is hanging by a thread in the hospital, badly burned) and is at 24,000 acres and growing. What they did is certainly murder and they should be prosecuted if we can find them. But just because the arsonists are guilty shouldn’t distract us from all the other things that doomed the firefighters. These fall into three categories, and the second two are people behaving badly:

I. Constraints

(A) The immutable physical linkages among pressure, temperature, and volume in a gas (air) means that when dry air slides down a mountain, usually opposite the prevailing wind direction, it gets hotter and drier. PV=nRT, and the adiabatic lapse rate is about 5 deg. F/1000 ft whether we like it (or believe it) or not. When, not if: places like California (Santa Ana), Provence (Mistral), North Africa (Scirocco), Austria (Foehn) regularly experience this hot, dry wind. Regularly.

(B) Mediterranean climate, meaning long summers with no rain, and a resulting ecology of regular wildfires and plants adapted to them.

(C) Lightning ignites fires.

II. Private choices

(A) People go into environments like the one experiencing this fire, build houses, and live in them.

(B) Other people go into these environments, whether by road or off-road vehicles, with widely varying judgment, experience, and moral fitness to be left unsupervised. Some among them will start fires, on purpose or accidentally.

III. Public policy

(A) Land use, zoning, tax policy, and road construction choices permit and facilitate human habitation of these extremely dangerous places.

(B) Emergency services, especially firefighting, are deployed to protect structures and citizens where possible when (again, not if) the fire occurs.

(C) Insurance companies, though heavily regulated in many ways, are not obliged to charge premiums that reflect the real expected cost of choices like II (A); indeed, they are under heavy political pressure to keep insurance “affordable” for people who enjoy living in dangerous places, and enjoy it even more if they can get everyone else (taxpayers and other policyholders) to pay for their risks.

There’s nothing to be done about category I, and little for II(B). But the firefighters died, heroically, trying to save a house. What was it doing there? The homeowners, whose reckless decision to live in a fire zone of canyons and steep slopes, have not been identified in news stories that treat the arsonists as the unique cause of the tragedy [update 28/X/06: now they have]; neither have the Riverside County supervisors who chose to enable citizen behavior that is certain to lead to outcomes like this, nor the state insurance regulators who enabled a systematic deception of the homeowners about the risks they were creating. Firefighters will die as long as we have buildings, but foolish land use policy will kill a lot more of them.

Fires will be set, by people (accidentally or on purpose) or by lightning. This landscape will burn. Just as surely, as my father used to say, as God made little green apples, beaches and seaside cliffs will erode, hurricanes will blow, flood plains will flood, and living in places like those entails absolutely certain disasters. Some firefighters’ doom was sealed when people moved out into the chaparral canyons, we just didn’t know which ones’.

What about earthquakes? Good question: the answer is that we do a lot better pricing the risk (bought any earthquake insurance in California lately?) than we used to, and it’s much easier to build for personal and building survivability in a seismic zone than to do the same for fires and floods. We built San Francisco in the wrong place before we realized how dangerous it was, but that’s no reason to keep making such mistakes in new hazard zones, especially at public expense.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

9 thoughts on “Who killed the firefighters?”

  1. Michael,
    I think your III(c) would be more accurate if stated as follows:
    "Insurance companies, are heavily regulated in many ways, and generally are not allowed to charge premiums that reflect the real expected cost of choices like II (A);"
    The insurance industry (I work in life insurance) is endlessly trying to charge prices commensurate with the risk on a fine-grained basis; regulators frequently forbid them from doing so, and California is one of the states that is notoriously bad in this regard. (Look at Garamendi's "interpretation" of Proposition 103 for an easy-to-find example).

  2. I live up in Shasta County, far northern California, where we have at least one nasty fire burning through a semirural suburb of Redding almost every fall.
    Particularly after the past few years, homeowners here would be very surprised to hear that insurance companies aren't raising rates to account for their risk.

  3. "Some firefighters' doom was sealed when people moved out into the chaparral canyons, we just didn't know which ones'."
    Of course, it's perfectly possible to build houses in chaparral canyons which will shrug off fires without significant damage, and thus which don't require firefighters to risk their lives. The real problem is that firefighting and actuarially unsound insurance rates distort choices. Rather than taking choices away, perhaps we should try not distorting them.

  4. If firefighting were a private function instead of an instrument of state coercion, no-one would ever die in fires.
    Instead, ponies would descend from the heavens on wings of fire.
    (Trying to head off the libertarians before they arrive.)

  5. I'm not sure what your point is; I'm actually not a UCLA prof but a Berkeley prof, hence the SF example which was no more than that. Sure, there are lots of other places we wouldn't build on if we were smart and didn't already have a big installed base of residents and infrastructure. Fire-prone canyons are among these.
    Actually big earthquakes almost never knock down properly constructed buildings, including most wood buildings, though liquefaction zones can leave even those unusable (but rarely collapsed on the occupants). Big earthquakes where buildings are made of masonry and mud do knock everything down, hence the appalling death rates from earthquakes in the middle east, Pakistan, etc. And hence the catastrophes looming for Boston and Memphis, that will be so expensive to avoid the city fathers are paralyzed in even starting to think about it.

  6. "If firefighting were a private function instead of an instrument of state coercion, no-one would ever die in fires."
    That's rather silly; If firefighting were a private function, the market would reach some kind of equilibrium between the cost of building, and saving the lives of firefighters and their customers. It takes a government to decide that only one of these factors should be maximized, to the detriment of the others.

  7. "What they did is certainly murder and they should be prosecuted if we can find them. "
    Well, they should certainly be prosecuted. But I don't see how what they did is murder, particularly as the firefighters died in the protection of real property and not lives, as you point out. And, to my knowledge, there is no allegation that the fire was set with the intent of killing anybody.
    I don't say this to make light of the action…certainly, if convicted, I wouldn't care if they spent the rest of their lives behind bars. I just object to the rhetorical device of elevating malevolent actions to the status of "murder" in order to make the action sound more grave.

  8. I thought my point was straightforward. The risk of your building falling down is sufficiently small that there are very few "wrong" places to build because of earthquake risk. Work up an accounting in which you depreciate infrastructure investment faster than usual, and voila — San Francisco is no more "wrong" than Berkeley or Tokyo, its accounting simply changes.
    By "big" earthquakes I don't mean the occasional thrillride M-7 like Loma Prieta or Northridge, I mean the M-8+ you're occasionally going to get. Another Valdivia is going to knock down things close by, no matter how well built.
    Apologies for the location mistake. My freshman dorm at Cal was quite literally on top of the Hayward fault. That's the fault around the state that worries me most.

  9. Amen;. My house and my office (both wood-frame and seismically upgraded to a fare-thee-well) are both a short stroll from the fault; I send my computer backups to my mother-in-law in Raleigh, NC!

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