In fire and in flood, extra help for the rich
Another installment in the continuing series of Francis linking to embargoed content that you probably don’t have access to online, but which you should, because it’s Harper’s dammit, and you’d pay money for it if you cared about the world of letters at all you philistine.
Writing for Harper’s, McKenzie Funk reports that AIG and other insurance companies are offering enhanced private firefighting services for those who want to pay extra:
... Firebreak has a proprietary system to coat houses with liquefied Phos-Chek—the same chemical retardant used by the Forest Service and first developed in the 1960s by Monsanto. The spray is colorless and harmless, Chief Sam said, and it can protect your home for up to eight months, far longer than rival gels and foams.
In 2005, Firebreak went to work for AIG’s insurance division, now called Chartis Insurance, increasing the fleet of the division’s Private Client Group from two to twelve trucks and expanding its reach from fourteen elite California zip codes—90049, 90077, 90210, etc.—to nearly 200, plus zips in Vail, Aspen, and Breckenridge, Colorado. Chief Sam joined the company in 2006, after five years as fire chief in Monrovia. He’d been planning a second career in executive coaching until he read about AIG’s new wildfire unit in Fortune. “It was the thing of the future,” he told me, “and I wanted to get in on the ground floor.”
Firebreak was growing—Chief Sam’s friend George had just started a two-truck pilot program for Farmers Insurance—but now there was competition. Chubb insurance protects policyholders in thirteen western states through Montana’s Wildfire Defense Systems, which sprays homes with rival Thermo-Gel retardant. Fireman’s Fund contracts San Diego’s Fireprotec to clear a defensible space around clients’ homes, and offers evacuation services to its richest customers. San Diego’s Fire-Pro USA sprays homes with patented FireIce gel. Wildomar’s Pacific Fire Guard deploys “the Navy SEALs of firefighters” to spray homes with GELTEC retardant.
And the services aren’t simply limited to firefighting:
AIG has Firebreak, but where rich policyholders are clustered on risky coastlines, the Private Client Group is offering the Hurricane Protection Unit: men with GPS units and satellite phones who are on the scene after a storm blows through, boarding up broken doors and windows, patching holes in roofs, covering skylights with tarps, evacuating valuable artwork.
For what it’s worth, nothing in the Harper’s article seems to indicate that these private operators were at all interfering with the actions of government firefighters. Also, I’m one of those people who thinks that maybe California needs to set an explicit zone past which the assistance of government firefighters can’t be counted on, and maybe that the federal government shouldn’t be implicitly subsidizing development in hurricane zones either. Obviously a situation in which the poor can’t live safely in these troubled areas, but the rich can do so if they’re willing to pay for the luxury, certainly makes income inequality more glaring. But I’m not sure that governments should be funding further encroachments on unstable climes either.