Why some landowners in the West are fighting fires themselves : The Indicator from Planet Money Emergency services are spread so thin in the West that some property owners are taking a D-I-Y approach to firefighting.
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DIY Firefighting

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DIY Firefighting

DIY Firefighting

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Early one morning back in 2017, Preston Addison (ph) woke up to the sound of his neighbor pounding on his door.

PRESTON ADDISON: The call came about 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.

GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: His neighbor told him a wildfire was coming, and he asked Preston for help waking their neighbors. Preston and his neighbor live in Cloverdale, a small town in California's wine country. It's about 30 miles north of the city of Santa Rosa, where there were already devastating fires burning.

ADDISON: Everybody was there. That's where all the resources were.

GARCIA: Preston and his neighbors knew that for the fire authorities, their tiny community was probably a low priority.

ROSALSKY: So they got to work protecting the community themselves. The area has a lot of wine growers and ranchers who have equipment that, in a pinch, can be helpful for firefighting.

ADDISON: Several neighbors on ranches started driving their bulldozers that night, cutting fire lines.

GARCIA: When Preston says fire lines, he means strips of bare earth that will not burn. His neighbors were plowing the earth, removing brush and forming a barrier against the oncoming wildfire.

ADDISON: By 10:00 a.m. the next day, the fire was right at that line.

ROSALSKY: But Preston and his fellow amateur firefighters, they knew they weren't finished. The fire could jump the fire line at any moment and destroy their homes, so they improvised ways to put out the flames. Preston, who's a contractor, owned a water trailer and a pump. Now, it was like a mobile fire hydrant.

GARCIA: And his neighbors, who were wine growers and ranchers, had water trucks which, in a way, are kind of like fire trucks.

ROSALSKY: And to top it off, one of Preston's neighbors had the real thing. He had a real-life fire truck.

ADDISON: It was a surprise.

GARCIA: And with those water trucks and trailers and a real-deal fire engine, Preston and his neighbors successfully fought back the fire, at least long enough for the fire department to arrive and to provide reinforcements.

ADDISON: I have no doubt that the fire would have taken our homes had those guys on the ranch not been cutting fire lines at 2:00 a.m. that morning.

GARCIA: Over the past few weeks, fires have burned millions of acres on the West Coast. And, Greg, you're on the West Coast. I mean, you've been in the middle of this thing.

ROSALSKY: Yeah, I am at my mom's house in Sonoma, Calif. This is where I grew up. And to be honest, I don't remember fires being this bad growing up. Now it's like ground zero for wildfires every single year.


ROSALSKY: And I'm Greg Rosalsky.

It used to be when there was a big wildfire out West, you relied on professional firefighters to save your property. And if they couldn't, hopefully you had insurance that would help you rebuild. But two things are changing that.

GARCIA: Yeah. One - the fires are getting so frequent and so fearsome that firefighters are just completely outmatched. And two - insurance is not an option for everyone.

ROSALSKY: What happens when you can't rely on public firefighting or private insurance? Today on the show, I go down a Craigslist rabbit hole to get a peek at the underground world of DIY firefighting.


GARCIA: OK. So, Greg, you promised a Craigslist rabbit hole.

ROSALSKY: That's right.

GARCIA: Give it to us.

ROSALSKY: When fire season began, I started searching for fire trucks on Craigslist. And there were a ton, Cardiff, I got to tell you.


ROSALSKY: I'm actually going to send you some pics right now 'cause these are freaking awesome. I'm sending it to you right now. Hopefully it's going. It's got some attachments, so...

GARCIA: Got it. OK. I just got two pics. The first one is great. It's a picture of a fire truck that's sort of like the classic truck that you would walk by in a fire station. It's huge. There's pipes and ladders everywhere. It's really long. The second one, though, is a little bit different. It looks like a pickup truck that's been kind of adapted into a fire truck.

ROSALSKY: That one is a mini fire truck from Japan. There's this company that buys them in Japan, imports them and then sells them here.

GARCIA: So it's kind of like fire truck arbitrage.

ROSALSKY: Exactly. But the most interesting story I found while looking for fire trucks on Craigslist was from this guy Lance Williams (ph) in Lake County, Calif.

GARCIA: OK. Go for it.

ROSALSKY: There's two things you need to know about him. One - he's a former motorcycle racer who now works in the cannabis industry.

GARCIA: OK. I'm already interested. I really want to know why he's mixed up in firetrucks.

ROSALSKY: OK. Well, that leads me to the second thing you need to know about Lance. In 2015, a wildfire ripped through his property. And there was no one there to help. His entire property was destroyed.

LANCE WILLIAMS: The flames are a hundred feet tall. And the wheels on a 4Runner we had parked there melted off and made a stream of metal - aluminum metal.

ROSALSKY: Lance says cannabis growers like him have a special need for private firefighting. For one thing, they tend to be in remote areas with less population. That makes it less likely they'll get help from fire departments. And two - even if they get the state permits to legally grow weed in California, it's still really hard to get crop insurance.

WILLIAMS: This is still federally illegal. And now we have our property, but we can't insure it. So I was just like buy a fire truck. I mean, what are you supposed to do? I don't want to sit here if it's coming through.

ROSALSKY: After the fire destroyed his property, Lance bought a fire engine at a government auction in Kansas. The truck he got? It's a 1967 Ford 750 with four-wheel drive.

GARCIA: Yeah, that is a an old-school tough-looking fire truck right there.

ROSALSKY: It's pretty badass.

WILLIAMS: This is a very rare truck. It's hard to find four-by-four fire trucks. And where I am, I have dirt roads, and it's quite steep. You need a four-by-four to even get up.

GARCIA: Greg, this is interesting because last year THE INDICATOR did a show about private firefighting as well. And we found that it was mostly insurance companies and not homeowners who were behind that industry's growth. And it makes sense because they have lots of money on the line if peoples' insured properties burn. But what you found here is something kind of different. In the case of weed, growers have big incentives to protect their properties themselves precisely because they cannot get insurance.

ROSALSKY: Yeah. And I should say it's not just weed growers who are buying up old firefighting equipment to protect their property because more and more people are finding it hard to get insurance. Or people are finding the insurance just isn't enough to compensate them for losing everything in a wildfire.

GARCIA: So wait. Greg, why is Lance selling his fire truck?

ROSALSKY: Well, Cardiff, his cannabis farm isn't really up and running yet. So he didn't need his fire engine this season. And he figured, might as well put it on Craigslist.

WILLIAMS: And I put it up there because I thought someone might be in the situation where they need to save their farm.

GARCIA: And has anyone actually bought it?

ROSALSKY: Not yet. He says he has a couple interested buyers, but they haven't given him the cash yet. So...

GARCIA: I was going to say, are the two interested buyers named Greg Rosalsky and Cardiff Garcia? Because if not...

ROSALSKY: (Laughter) Do you want a fire truck?

GARCIA: That's maybe something we can make happen. All right. Greg, seriously though, thanks for bringing us this really intriguing story. Tell everybody where they can find your work.

ROSALSKY: Well, I write the PLANET MONEY newsletter. And you should totally subscribe. It's npr.org/planetmoneynewsletter.

GARCIA: Comes out once a week, right?

ROSALSKY: Comes out once a week. And there's lots of fire truck content (laughter). No, just kidding.

GARCIA: Greg, thanks again. This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced Nick Fountain and Jamila Huxtable. It was fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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