Big government saved my home

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Camarilo Springs Fire Photo by AdiosEsposito/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

In a matter of two hours the Camarillo Springs fire spread across the four miles of rugged hills and brush that separated our Ventura County home from the epicenter of the fire. Hot Santa Ana winds stoked the fire, sent embers flying, and sapped precious humidity from the air. In the course of 24 hours, the fire burned across 15 miles to the Pacific Coast, until there was nothing left to burn but ocean.

24,000 acres. More than 4,000 homes were in the burn area. Yet not a single home, including ours, was lost to the fire.

I’ve often heard that regulation is “strangling the economy” and “limiting individual choice.” Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry has visited California seeking to lure businesses to his state promising more permissive regulatory environment.

My home is still standing: I credit Big Government.

The National Association of Home Builders estimates that the average impact of regulations on the cost of a single-family home in California is $32,000. The NAHB sees these costs as a burden.

But what about the benefits of those regulatory costs?

Homes in our area are required to have fire-retardant roofs and fire-retardant siding. Our subdivision is required to have roads with sufficient width to allow the passage of wide-bodied emergency vehicles. Every few hundred yards in a California development you will find a fire hydrant. All of these precautions, and many others, add to the cost of a California home. But when an inevitable wildfire threatens, my home remains standing.

CAL FIRE is a California State agency that helps to organize the response to such fires; the cost of doing this is more than $1 billion per year. At the height of the blaze, nearly 2,000 firefighters from dozens of areas throughout California and several other states were engaged in the battle. We are responsible for salaries, training, facilities, and equipment for these fire companies; and we are on the hook for their costs of retirement. They are among the public employees about whom small government conservatives complain.

In April this year Americans were horrified when a fertilizer plant in West, Texas caught fire, triggering a massive explosion that killed 14 (mostly volunteer first responders), injured 200, obliterated 50 homes, and destroyed the West Texas Intermediate School located next to the plant. Leave aside whether the plant was properly regulated. For me the more acute question was why a school and homes were built so close by.

“And we kind of don’t like land use [policies] in Texas,” Kelly Haragan, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Texas told NPR. “So we’ve ended up where facilities are very close to people.”

California also allows permits development in vulnerable areas, of course—but with reasonable precautions in the event of disaster.

This doesn’t mean we turn everything over to government. When we evacuated from our home, our Camarillo social network was crucial. A friend and neighbor helped us to evacuate our animals; many people offered their homes to us; and one family took us and our pets into their home overnight.

Too often, American politics is described as a contest between Big Government and civil society. Westerners, in particular, are vulnerable to this point of view. But the historical truth is that we “won” the West through the efforts of individuals and government; yes, even the federal government.

Less regulation and smaller government would probably have doomed my home, but only my neighbors could have promptly taken in my family in during evacuation. We continue to win the West through the combined efforts of government and civil society in cooperation. So thank you, neighbors, and thank you, Big Government.

Sean Q. Kelly, a professor of political science at Cal State Channel Islands, is co-author of Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks Are Good for American Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers). He wrote this for Zócalo Public Square.