McKenzie Funk with AIG’s Private Firefighting Brigade
From “Too Big to Burn: AIG plays God in a man-made firestorm,” in the October 2009 Harper’s Magazine.
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.”
From the Web
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