Article — From the October 2009 issue

Too Big to Burn

AIG plays God in a man-made firestorm

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The first light we ran was at Main Street and Jamboree Road, near the Hyatt, and we ran it mostly because we could. Chief Sam flicked on his siren, and eighteen lanes of traffic froze in place. We nudged into the intersection. We accelerated. We swerved. We accelerated again. Our red Ford Expedition, topped with red lights, emblazoned with the word fire, shot onto the 405, tires screeching. Car after car pulled over to let us by until, as we merged onto I-5, some civilian in a Civic didn’t. “Look at this guy,” Chief Sam muttered, and then he cut into the median to race past him.

The traffic died down near Disneyland, but the Santa Ana wind picked up—a hot wind coming from the desert, an arid wind, a wind that sucked any remaining moisture from the landscape. It funneled through the canyons in gusts, carrying brush, bits of cloth, plastic bags, and clouds of dust. The dust blasted across the freeway, ocean-bound, and our truck, now going seventy-five in the center lane, shook from side to side.

It was October 2008 in Los Angeles, less than a month after the initial, $85 billion bailout of American International Group, less than a week after the government gave the insurance company $37.8 billion more. But Chief Sam’s division of AIG, the Wildfire Protection Unit, was proceeding as if nothing had changed. The actuaries had determined that it was cheaper to prevent houses from burning than to replace them, and even as AIG was preparing to be taken over by the government, it was sending out its private army of firemen. Chief Sam stepped on the gas. He offered me a protein bar. He put headphones in his ears, picked up his Blackberry, and began making calls.

A call to his crew: “Right now, Pump 31 should be partnered up or out patrolling. Pump 42 should be teamed up and ready to be deployed. No delays. Just be out and about. A good staging location. Out of bed and get ’em married. Right now.”

A live call to KTTV Fox 11 News: “If you’re asked to voluntarily evacuate, please do so. Don’t wait, because you impede the efforts of firefighters when you evacuate at the last minute. Prepare now. We’re under Red Flag fire conditions all day long. Start getting prepared now. Don’t wait for the last minute. Get some of your belongings that are important to you, and get ’em in your car, so that you are prepared and you don’t wait until the last minute.”

A call to a radio producer: “Hi, I’m Fire Chief Sam DiGiovanna, I’ve done reports for you guys in the past. Do you want anything done this morning on these fires? DiGiovanna. D-I. G-I. O. V. A. N-N. A. And it’s just very simple. Dee. Gee. Oh. Vanna . . .”

An interview: “Smoke conditions, ashes . . . it’s rough for firefighters. But I have to tell you, they’re doing an outstanding job. We did a great job yesterday, and unfortunately Mother Nature came in and kicked up the winds . . . I think the public needs to recognize and acknowledge the firefighters. I know. I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years, and they’re doing one heckuva job . . .”

A call to yet another station: “This is Fire Chief Sam DiGiovanna. I did the reporting from last year’s wildfire. Who’s the newsroom coordinator? . . . Yes. This is Fire Chief Sam DiGiovanna, and I’ve done some reporting for you guys during the last wildfires. Do you want any live talk on this? . . . Hi, this is Fire Chief Sam DiGiovanna . . .”

On the phone, Chief Sam always identified himself as the training chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy, his part-time job. He didn’t mention AIG. Although the highway was now clear of traffic, Chief Sam turned on the siren before making some of his calls. When he finished talking, he turned it off.

We left I-5 for Highway 2. A white cloud of smoke was visible in the distance, somewhere east of Pasadena, and Chief Sam switched on the news. The flames were burning right down to the 210 freeway, the announcer said. Wall Street was finally having a bit of a rally, up 400 points. Chief Sam changed the channel to his favorite, Smooth Jazz 94.7, and an instrumental version of the Doobie Brothers’ “Minute by Minute” filled the cab of the Expedition.

Just after we turned onto the 210 we came to the first police line, a diagonal string of orange cones guarded by a single squad car. Everyone was being funneled off the freeway, causing a traffic jam, but we accelerated in the left lane. The siren came on again. Chief Sam, a firefighter for twenty-nine of his forty-nine years, dark-haired and barrel-chested, looking official in his blue uniform and red fire truck, gave a convincing wave to the cop. The cop waved back. I watched the traffic pass in a blur until we crossed the cones and were completely alone. Suddenly everything had the look of war, the scent of smoke. Chief Sam showed no emotion, but he put down the Blackberry.

The darkest clouds were chemical, from a fuel that was man-made, and toxic—not chaparral, not wood. From a burning mobile home. A burning landfill. A burning panel truck parked on a ridge. Helicopters clattered overhead, dumping white clouds of water that seemed to have no effect. Gusts blew the vapor sideways, with the smoke. On the freeway, strike teams—five-vehicle convoys sent from neighboring cities—rolled by at eighty miles an hour. A semi truck from the Los Angeles County Fire Department passed us, towing a red bulldozer. Traffic signs appeared and disappeared, obscured by the haze. The hills themselves were turning black, and where the vegetation had burned away, the rocks were set free and small landslides littered the side roads.

The AIG team was waiting at a municipal park in Sylmar, the staging area for the fight against the 5,000-acre blaze that was consuming Little Tujunga Canyon. Their trucks, Pumps 21 and 23, were red Ford F-550s with orange hoses and chrome panels—just two of the dozen such trucks commanded by Chief Sam. The men were in their twenties and thirties, clean-cut and bored. They were waiting for something to do. This neighborhood, though imperiled, wasn’t quite rich enough: AIG’s Private Client Group insures and protects only homes worth at least a million dollars.

Whether by chance or by design, the privateers were parked slightly apart from the exhausted hand crews and Forest Service hotshots, who often made them feel unwelcome. The idea that privateeers were protecting the ultrarich just bothered some people. But the logic of it was familiar, inescapable: Sure, AIG could simply let fire consume its biggest clients’ homes and then pay out millions in insurance claims. But wasn’t it wiser to step in and bail them out?

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