Article — From the October 2009 issue

Too Big to Burn

AIG plays God in a man-made firestorm

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Chief Sam and I left the staging area and drove uphill, toward the fire, to check on the pilot program for Farmers Insurance. It was the new team’s second day facing an actual blaze. Chief Sam had just directed Pump 43 to come here from San Diego, leaving the city exposed and worrying the people back at Farmers. We pulled over to check in. “I’m on the scene right now,” Chief Sam reassured his Farmers contact as we stared at the walls of a freeway underpass. There was a pause. He stiffened. “Well, a good comeback you may want to say is, You know, we’ve got a fire chief who has thirty years of experience,” he said. “So you guys do the, uh, insurance underwriting and everything you do. I know what I’m doing. Throw it on my shoulders, and I’ll take the whipping if something happens. So hit me with a wet noodle!”

We drove on to the Little Tujunga police line, where civilians were amas-sed on the sidewalk, carrying their photo albums in pillowcases, their flat-screen TVs in cardboard boxes, their cell phones in their hands. We crossed the line with our lights flashing, nodding our heads at the police. Beyond it, garbage cans still sat curbside at every empty house—it must have been trash day—and the wind was toppling them, spilling their contents onto the street. A few stragglers in gas masks were defying the evacuation order. A kid rode his bicycle in circles in the middle of the road. An old man in a flannel shirt sprayed the sidewalk in front of his home with a garden hose.

Farmers Pump 25 was parked alone on a side street. George, an amiable man with gray hair and a gray mustache who’d fought alongside Chief Sam for decades before both retired from the Monrovia Fire Department, was in the driver’s seat. He started up the engine, and together we charged uphill until we reached a modest, single-story home—Farmers was less exclusive than AIG—that was in little immediate danger. George’s young partner hopped out wearing a yellow helmet and yellow protective gear, unspooled an orange hose, and tugged it up a set of brick steps. He squeezed the nozzle, coating the home’s sickly lawn in Phos-Chek. Chief Sam encouraged me to take some photos. I took some.

Then we waited. Firebreak’s dispatchers, up in Oregon, were trying to put more addresses on George’s priority list, which required determining where the fire was going and which Farmers homes were in its path. But the fire wasn’t moving very quickly—the Los Angeles Fire Department had it nearly contained—and the pilot program was so new, the dispatchers so unpracticed, that they seemed to struggle to find any Farmers addresses. First we waited for orders outside the house we’d just sprayed. Then we waited on Gavina, an avenue that traversed the hills, dipping where it crossed Pacoima Wash. Then we waited uphill amid the neighborhood’s newest, largest homes: palm trees, stucco roofs, trimmed lawns, territorial views, proximity to the flames. Forty minutes passed. Chief Sam called Farmers headquarters again. “Can I put in a plug for us?” he asked. “We need . . . I know we’re in a pilot program, but these guys are doing a helluva job. They are saving homes. We just need more trucks!”

We started driving back toward Gavina, watching a skycrane helicopter and super-scooper airplane dump retardant on the hills, passing dozens of public firefighters, none of whom acknowledged us. “These guys are wanting us to spray homes for them,” Chief Sam continued, “but we say, ‘Sorry, these are dedicated to Farmers homes.’”

George finally got another address, and we sped across the wash toward a gated community. We followed Pump 25 past a clump of for sale signs shrouded by smoke, then down one block, peering at house numbers, then down the next. We lurched forward, then braked, watching George’s taillights flicker on and off. Chief Sam was getting agitated. “George, is that one of ours?” he asked over the radio. “That house on the corner, is it one of ours? Well, find ours. Is that one ours? Let’s find ours and spray it.”

At 10:45 a.m., two hours after we arrived on the scene, I watched Pump 25 spray a second Farmers property, a two-story stucco home in a subdivision called Mountain Glen. By 11:00 a.m., we were parked on Gavina again, waiting for a new list.

A few minutes later, the driver of Pump 43, arriving from San Diego, called Chief Sam for his orders. Chief Sam called command: “We’re spraying homes on Santa Catalina . . . well, that . . . yeah . . . Okay. . . . Okay. . . . they . . . we . . . Okay. . . . STOP!”

He was shouting now. He calmed his voice. “We’re in a bad cell receptive area,” he said, “so we’re not going to be able to talk to you much. But I’m just gonna say this. You guys generate a list. . . . I don’t have any clue. I don’t have the capability. . . . Generate a list for Pump 43 to go spray homes. . . . We’re under duress. We’ve got fire licking at our butts. . . . Well, I don’t know what to do, because I don’t have the priority list. That’s what your guys’ job is. So we’re out fighting the fire, and he’s calling us, asking where to go. Well, I don’t know . . . ”

He hung up. The CB crackled: “Chief, Pump 43.” He ignored it.

The CB crackled again: “Firebreak team, come in.”

“Pump 43, Chief Sam, go ahead,” he responded.

“Yeah, Chief, uh, Pump 43. We are at the address command sent us to. There’s really no area we need to spray here. Just wanted to get an update on where you want us to be.”

Chief Sam’s face hardened. “Okay. You’re talking to the wrong guy. Command tells you where to go. I don’t have a priority list, Todd. Do you have command’s phone number?”

“Copy that, Chief. They advised to contact you, but I’ll contact them.”

We parked at a spot overlooking the wash and watched a weathered crew from the Los Angeles Fire Department do the less complex work of attacking the fire itself. Some men had hoses, some shovels. Their faces and jackets were smeared with soot. In the distance, six other firefighters marched single-file across the charred valley. A woman from the Los Angeles Daily News began interviewing Chief Sam as he sat in his truck, so I got out and wandered over to join George in Pump 25, arriving just in time for one of the LAFD firefighters to approach the window.

“So, do you guys just do a certain area?” the firefighter asked. “You go to certain addresses, and if . . . ?”

“If they’re in danger, we try to go ahead and spray, yeah,” George said. “We try to get ahead of it, but with erratic winds like this, you know . . .”

“Yeah,” said the firefighter. He knew.

“It’s like the old days,” George’s partner offered, “with all the insurance companies.”

It was an obscure—if accurate—reference to London in the seventeenth century, when any firefighting was done by private insurers. The firefighter took it in. After he left, George rolled up the window. “You see?” he said. “He feels better now.”

I returned to Chief Sam’s truck, and we drove around the corner, out of the smoke. The smooth jazz came on again, and then he turned it down to make another call: “Hi, I’m a fire chief here in L.A. I was just at the Hyatt, and could you send me some of those wasabi peas? . . . Which one is it? With the green ones? . . . The Hyatt . . . Okay.
. . . And how much would it . . . Yeah. Could you send me a box of those? A big box? . . . Okay. Send me three pounds.”

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