“Rich people don’t get their own ‘better’ firefighters, or at least they aren’t supposed to.”
As multiple devastating wildfires raged across California, a private firefighting crew reportedly helped save Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s home in Calabasas, TMZ reported this week. The successful defense of the $50 million mansion is the most prominent example of a trend that’s begun to receive national attention: for-hire firefighters protecting homes, usually on the payroll of an insurance company with a lot at risk.
The insurance companies AIG and Chubb have publicly talked about their private wildfire teams. AIG has its own “Wildfire Protection Unit,” while Chubb—and up to a dozen other insurers—contract with Wildfire Defense Systems, a Montana company that claims to have made 550 “wildfire responses on behalf of insurers,” including 255 in just the past two years. Right now in California, the company has 53 engines working to protect close to 1,000 homes.
The TMZ story feels uniquely 2018—financial capitalism, inequality, KimYe, the fires of Armageddon—and it is, for Americans at least.
“If the idea of private firefighting strikes us as an oddity nowadays, it should,” Benjamin Carp, a historian at Brooklyn College CUNY, told me. “While other societies throughout history have relied on private firefighting companies to protect the property of the upper classes … for the most part we … have accepted the idea that fighting fire ought to be a public good.”
In London, firefighters worked explicitly for insurance companies during the 18th and 19th centuries. “Each insurance company maintained its own fire brigade, which extinguished fires in those buildings insured by the company and, in return for a fee to be paid later, in buildings insured by other companies,” the economist Annelise Anderson has written.