Fighting Fire With Fire

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Interesting story out of California, where two brothers may go to jail for setting a back fire on their own property to protect against approaching wildfires. They set the blaze in defiance of direct orders from local authorities.

As it turns out, the back fires saved the brothers’ home, as well as the homes of several people who rented from them, and potentially an entire neighborhood.

Emergencies can often call for a different set of rules (remember the post-Katrina euthanasia cases?). A little prosecutorial discretion would go a long way, here.

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13 Responses to “Fighting Fire With Fire”

  1. #1 |  jhawk | 

    My family has a summer home in Crown King Arizona that was almost lost, along with the entire town, last week. After watching the forest service come in, evacuate, and save an entire town from a forest fire in the span of a few days I realize what a complex and daunting task fighting a forest fire is.

    The guys in the article not only put themselves at risk by doing what they did they potentailly put others at risk. I’m sure if the wind had changed and thier “back burn” had turned on them they would have been screaming to be rescued.

  2. #2 |  Jesse | 


    But what they did worked. The question is, are they criminally negligent?

    Ever speed up or otherwise break the law to avoid an accident or potentially dangerous situation on the road? I see this as similar. When protecting yourself and your property, a little leeway is called for.

    I think you are missing the point of this website, or maybe don’t agree with the libertarian point of view.

  3. #3 |  Jim Collins | 

    They got lucky. Plain and simple. Prosecute them.

  4. #4 |  Steve Verdon | 


    If you lived in a city that bans handguns and a relative of yours in the same city used a handgun to defend himself/herself from a criminal and the criminal was shot and killed and said criminal had a long violent history…you’d obviously prosecute your own relative and/or vote guilty if on the jury right?

  5. #5 |  SusanK | 

    I’m all for changing the rules in an emergency, but only so long as those rule changes give the citizens MORE leeway. Unfortunately, the government seems to interpret emergencies as giving it the right to take away freedom (like the gun confiscations in post-Katrina).

  6. #6 |  jhawk | 

    I understand the purpose of this site and I’m whole heartedly a libertarian. The fact of the mater is these guys didn’t know what they were doing, or how their actions would affect others, both property owners and fire fighters. They were concerned solely about themselves. As a Libertarian I believe you should be able to protect yourself and property, but not at the expense of others.

    Should we allow all property owners to start “back burns” if they think their property is potentially in danger? If these guys aren’t held accountable we would be. How then is the fire controlled and managed when you have property owners who know nothing about fire control setting “back burns” all through the forest? Would you trust your neighbor’s ability to set a “back burn” to protect his property? I like my neighbor, but I trust the Forest Service.

  7. #7 |  Steve Verdon | 

    In reading the article is sounds like they did good work–i.e. they may not be professionals, but they did it right.

    Also note that many of the firefighters out there right now are also volunteers/non-professionals. Should we arrest them too?

    This boils down to:

    Things could have gotten out of hand and the government doesn’t want to try and sort out the mess afterwards. So they’ll simply prevent people from protecting their property to make their job easier. Samething goes for home defense and firearms. Who did what is a messy and expensive process so we’ll yank that right so the government doesn’t have to actually do its job.

    Great idea jhawk. I think you need to recheck your libertarian beliefs.

  8. #8 |  Eric Ogunbase | 

    I was in San Diego for the fires in the fall of 2007. Perhaps if some others had set a few back fires, so many neighborhoods wouldn’t have been destroyed.

    The government gets upset when people try to do their job for them, but since they have a monopoly, there’s no incentive to improve in quality.

  9. #9 |  supercat | 

    The fact of the mater is these guys didn’t know what they were doing, or how their actions would affect others, both property owners and fire fighters.

    On what do you base that claim? If they were setting backfires in an area where there might otherwise be no fire, one could argue that their actions might have endangered others by causing the fire to spread somewhere it otherwise would not have. Has anyone articulated a specific plausible scenario, consistent with the situation observed by the people who set the backfires, by which those fires could have harmed anything or anyone that would otherwise have escaped harm? If not, what is the basis for the charges?

  10. #10 |  Justthisguy | 

    Oh, yeah, I remember when a sharp on-the-ball human saved the life of a cat in defiance of cop orders, during an apartment fire in Atlanta. The cop was trying to maintain his bully attitude, but did give it up after several dozen of us were giving him the hairy eyeball.

  11. #11 |  Pepito | 

    The whole group living up there helped to do this, and its not as if they half assed it either. “Making clear fire breaks around the buildings, hauling away at least 150 pickup-truck loads of vegetation” is not some idiots idea of just trying to wing it and make a fire break. With that type of work they obviously knew what needed to be done and tackled the problem. Just because they didn’t have some sort of paper saying that they’d been trained to do such doesn’t mean their incapable of doing it.

    The only reason I can see why the Fire Officials are irate is because a bunch of untrained people did something that their books said was impossible. As to their berating them for the fact that “An unauthorized backfire, they said, can catch a team of firefighters unaware and perhaps put those crews in danger.” That happens when their placing fires as well, just because its an Official doing a fire line doesn’t mean that the winds blow where they need to be.

  12. #12 |  freedomfan | 

    I sympathize with the government’s interest in this case to make sure amateur efforts don’t result in real danger to the people paid to do the job. Even those pros have back burns get away from them at times, so expertise is important. I also understand that just because something ends up working doesn’t mean it was a good idea; getting lucky is nice, but it’s not a basis for good policy.

    But, just going by the article, at least two things ameliorate the Curtis’ actions in my head. First, they asked for official help and were told they weren’t going to get any. With limited resources, sometimes “authorized personnel” have to say they won’t help you. To me, they cannot both say that AND also say you can’t help yourself. Second, at least one of them had some experience in fire fighting, so they weren’t total tyros who thought, “that looks easy” and started grabbing gas cans. The fire crews afterward said they did a good job.

    Radley’s comment is spot on: A little prosecutorial discretion would go a long way, here.

    Also, jhawk (#6), the idea of being “whole heartedly” a libertarian doesn’t square especially well with the idea that “I like my neighbor, but I trust the [government].” FWIW.

  13. #13 |  The Agitator » Blog Archive » Your Government at Work | 

    […] the TV cameras. Forget about taking steps to fight an approaching wildfire yourself. You’ll likely be arrested. Want to hire a private firm to provide extra fire protection? That may soon be illegal too, thanks […]