Planet Money

DIY Firefighting In California


A Californian resident hoses down a burning bicycle and tree as flames from the Hennessey Fire approach a property in the Spanish Flat area of Napa, Calif., on Aug. 18.
Josh Edelson, AFP via Getty Images

A Californian resident hoses down a burning bicycle and tree as flames from the Hennessey Fire approach a property in the Spanish Flat area of Napa, Calif., on Aug. 18.

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A couple of weeks ago, a lightning storm brought fire season to Northern California earlier than usual. When the fires broke out, it looked as though a volcano had erupted in front of my mom's house in Sonoma. Smoke filled the entire Bay Area like an apocalyptic fog. It smelled like campfire everywhere, and exercising outdoors became like smoking a half pack of cigarettes.

"I miss when it was just a pandemic and depression," my mom told me.

While multiple historic fires blazed, it became clear that there's a shortage of firefighters, airplanes and firetrucks to combat them. The state is doing what it can, but many calls for help have gone unanswered. It's been a similar story over the past few years. It's why Californians are increasingly taking matters into their own hands — creating a growing market for DIY firefighting.

As California entered this fire season, people began trying to sell used firetrucks on the Bay Area's Craigslist. One Craiglister posted a 1975 GMC firetruck for $7,000 or best offer. "Save yourself from a disaster," they wrote. A man named Paul posted a 1982 Ford firetruck for $15,000. He assures it's "in good working order." But there's a catch: "for pick up in North Dakota." That's a 30-hour drive away.

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A company called Vans From Japan has gotten into a business you might call firetruck arbitrage. You know, buying firetrucks in one place and making a profit by selling them in another place where they're more valuable. The Sacramento-based company has a whole fleet of tiny firetrucks imported from Japan that it's trying to sell on Craigslist.

Lance Williams is selling a 1967 Ford F750 4x4 fire engine for $15,000. "With these lightning complex fires going on, maybe you could use it," he writes in his Craigslist post. Williams is a former motorcycle racer based in Lake County, Calif., who now works in the cannabis industry. He says he bought his fire engine at a government auction in Kansas with the intention of using it to protect his cannabis farm. His Lake County property burned down in the 2015 Valley Fire, and he didn't want that to happen again. (He sent us a picture of what the Valley Fire did to his Toyota 4Runner. The blaze melted its aluminum wheels into flowing streams.)

The recession, Williams says, has dried up his investment money and derailed his plans for a new grow operation that he got state permits for. He didn't need his fire engine this season. "And I put it up on Craigslist because I thought someone might be in a situation where they need to save their farm or property," he says. While a single firetruck can't do much to stop a raging wildfire, he says, it can squirt out spot fires, prevent a fire from jumping a defensive firebreak, or hold a fire at bay until reinforcements arrive.

Cannabis farmers, Williams says, have a special need for private firefighting. For one, the farms are often in remote rural areas that are at the bottom of the list to be saved by government-sponsored firefighters. Even more, he says, because marijuana is not federally legal, it's difficult to get crop insurance even when you have state permits. The lack of insurance, he says, is the reason why he bought his fire engine. To combat fires, he says, growers are also buying water trucks and tenders, equipping their 4x4 trucks with water tanks, installing stationary water tanks with high-powered hoses, and using bulldozers to fortify their properties with firebreaks.

The extra efforts by cannabis growers to protect their farms is sort of the flipside of something economists call moral hazard. Moral hazard refers to the lack of incentives people have to protect their property against risks when their property is insured. For property owners lucky enough to have fire insurance, they get big payouts if their property burns. It's no coincidence that it's insurance companies, not homeowners, who are the primary drivers of the expanding private firefighting industry. They have lots of money on the line if people's insured properties burn.

In the case of cannabis farms, growers have huge incentives to protect their properties themselves because they don't have insurance. It's the opposite of moral hazard. Call it moral safeguard. They have to protect their own property or watch all their investment go up in smoke. And obviously not the type of smoke Californians want from marijuana.

With climate change increasing temperatures and decreasing precipitation, fire season may now be a regular fixture of late summer and early fall in California. And it's clear the market is paying attention. It's nurturing a growing private firefighting industry. It's jacking up insurance premiums. And, as Craigslist shows, it's bringing in more firetrucks to the state.

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