Another fire season has resulted in tragedy in Southern California and, once again, the federal, state, and local governments have shown that they still haven't learned how to deal with the threat. By now, you have probably heard about a lot of the bureaucratic bungling and red tape that impeded response efforts. As a San Diego resident, I had a front-row seat to the ineptitude. For example, despite the fact that the city is surrounded by three military bases, military assets went unutilized or underutilized. State rules require each federal helicopter to carry a licensed "fire spotter" from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). Unfortunately, Cal Fire didn't have spotters available, so nearly two dozen Marine, Navy, and California National Guard helicopters remained on the ground. In addition, two of the National Guard's C-130 cargo planes were unable to help because they still have not been fitted with tanks to carry thousands of gallons of water or fire retardant, despite promises to do so four years ago after the Cedar and Paradise fires ravaged the area. (For more details, see this Associated Press story.) Meanwhile, government officials from the president to the governor to the mayor to the County Board of Supervisors to spokesman from various government agencies constantly held press conferences where they stood around and congratulated each other on what a great job they were doing.
Some may say that the problems in responding to the fires in San Diego and elsewhere were just a matter of poor leadership. While this is true to some extent, I think there are problems with allowing government to handle such issues in the first place, problems that no change in leadership can fully address. The problem can be illustrated in the difference between public and private property and the different incentives of public land managers and private property owners. Government land management tends to be reactive, while private property management is proactive. Why is it that we never hear about the government clearing overgrown brush, creating fire breaks, or conducting controlled burns throughout the year, rather than responding only after there is a crisis and throwing money at the problem when it is too late?
Fire prevention is essentially about risk management and property protection, two of the things that free markets handle best! Author and columnist Lew Rockwell recently wrote an article on this issue. According to Rockwell,
Are we under the impression that private markets can't handle risk management? Private markets specialize in protection of property, particularly against natural risks. If the land were privately owned, it would be protected against burning through better management. If it had to be burned, the burning would be controlled. Unexpected events like droughts and winds would be calculated into management decisions.
What's more, there would be serious liability issues. Any owner of property who let fires rage would be directly responsible for imposing fires on others. This is the way markets work. If my bathtub overflows, floods my house, and then the waters flood my neighbor's house, I am responsible via my insurance policy. So, yes, there would be a price to pay for fires on your land that harm others' property.
What do we have today? We have fires that are no one's responsibility.
Perhaps it is time to rethink allowing government to manage our fire prevention efforts.