There was a
time when volunteer fire departments, paid fire fighters and local
residents would work hand-in-hand to put out wildfires. It was an
amenable relationship, sharing hardships, goals and camaraderie.
But if the 2008 California wildfires proved anything, it demonstrated
that this alliance is no longer a cornerstone of American communities.
Big Sur fires in July, residents who did not evacuate reported that
they felt they were behind "enemy lines." When 79-year-old
Don McQueen traveled down the road to his campground business to
provide hot water showers for fire crews, he was detained by sheriff
deputies and scolded.
was released, he soon discovered that fire officials had changed
the rule book. To him it seemed like the various federal and state
firefighting agencies no longer wanted to work with the community
to put out fires. Instead, they wanted Big Sur residents to leave
the area and stop defending their property. Worse still, the fire
fighter crews were "strictly forbidden to assist locals."
fighting fires since the 1940s, McQueen was told to get off his
ranch. When he refused, an official reportedly said, "We're
carefully allowing these homes to burn down. You can build a new
house at no cost with your insurance money." McQueen could
hardly believe what he had heard.
local residents, many of the fire crews were grounded and told to
let the fire burn itself out. One ashamed firefighter told them,
"I was taught to put out fire, not let them burn." Professionals
watched as the locals on the front line fought the blaze. Finally,
one crew become so upset that it covertly parked its engine near
McQueen's property, rolled out a 4,000-foot fire hose and helped
him to maintain his fire break.
On Apple Pie
Ridge in Big Sur another family worked feverishly to protect its
55-acre ranch and home. The Curtis family had successfully fought
several fires going back to the 1970s. Some family members and friends
had worked in the past as seasonal fire fighters. When the fire
crept within 12 feet of the family's property, they set a back fire,
which is legal "for the purpose of saving life or valuable
property" under California Public Resources Code 4426.
a short time a different type of firestorm flared up.
A Cal Fire
official and several sheriff deputies drew guns on Ross Curtis and
a friend. They were arrested, handcuffed and charged with lighting
a backfire. Outraged authorities said that the Curtis family, friends
and tenants had disobeyed warnings not to use backfires. But the
Curtis family also was told earlier that firefighters were ordered
away from his property; that the area was written off as "inaccessible
some of Curtis' fire-protection gear was confiscated as one deputy
warned them to stop impersonating a firefighter. There was even
talk that the two might be charged with arson. Despite the arrest,
no homes burned down on Apple Pie Ridge. In other areas, where people
had evacuated, many lost their homes.
Cal Fire Battalion
Chief Paul Van Gerwen still maintains that the Curtis family was
protecting their property in an "unlawful way," saying
that it had no permission from the government. Other officials said
that only professionals should fight fires.
the Monterey County sheriff's commander, commented that they tried
not to arrest anyone as long as they did not drift off to another
property or interfere with firefighters. In other words, residents
were under "house arrest." Of course, this was ludicrous.
Since many of the government firefighters were either benched or
ordered not to assist residents, only the local citizens were left
to protect structures. And they needed to move around, to help each
other fight the moving flames and to resupply residents and businesses.
officials should closely work with the locals to mitigate crises.
But under Big Sur's "Unified Command," local agencies
had little authority. Australia, by contrast, has a more libertarian
approach where rural residents are expected to defend their home
from any danger. But in America it appears that our government is
opposed to the freedom that would allow citizens to respond to emergencies
themselves, or to take an active role in being responsible and self-reliant.
good government only works in theory. That is why it is up to citizen
participation and vigilance to keep political systems from getting
out of control and from becoming over-centralized. One must wonder
which power is more devastating in the long run: wildfires or the
government's determination to make citizens dependent?
Samuels [send him mail],
a Monterey, CA Realtor, is editor and contributing author of Facets
of Liberty: A Libertarian Primer and a still-in-progress
book, In Defense of Chaos: the Chaology of Politics, Economics
and Human Action. He sits on the Executive Committee board of
the Libertarian Party of California. Visit his