Fairbanks, Alaska was one of the biggest towns in Alaska, but it still wasn’t big enough to fund its own fire-fighting department with taxes. Part of that may have had something to do with the traditional Alaskan terror of Big Gummint, but the result was the same:
If you wanted to be protected, you paid the firefighters to have your house covered. Like insurance, you paid up every month.
The men of Fairbanks were volunteer firefighters, but maintaining the fire engine and such still cost a chunk of change. As such, they needed the money to keep everything flowing. And when the houses began to burn – which, given how cold Alaska was and how much heat was needed to stay alive, was surprisingly often – the brave firefighters rode out to put down the flames.
…that is, if you’d paid up.
It was a terrible thing when someone hadn’t paid the firefighters. They couldn’t claim they didn’t know; everyone in town understood that the firefighters were pay-or-play. But there were a lot of people who figured that hell, they’d never need the firemen, and others who took shortcuts and figured that it was more important to pay some other bill that month. And just the same as everyone else, accidents happened to them.
If you had paid, they’d douse your house with water – no small trick in a place where the temperature got so cold that a cup of hot coffee would freeze into brown ice crystals when flung into mid-air. They’d put the fire out, and do their job.
If not? They’d call the cops. They’d get all the pets and the people out of the building; the volunteer firemen of Alaska were not cruel men. They’d wet the houses next to yours, making sure that the fire didn’t spread to consume all of Fairbanks.
Then they would sit down and watch your house burn.
The cops were there to protect the firemen; it wasn’t uncommon to have some furious homeowner run up and take a swing at the firemen carefully studying the blaze. And it must be tough to sit there and watch, knowing that your home was so close to being saved and yet having the whole society working against you.
But it had to be done. Because if people knew that the firemen would save them free of charge, then nobody would pay. And if people knew that you could avoid paying the firemen up until the moment that first spark hit your curtain, well, again, nobody would pay.
And if nobody paid, everyone paid. As I’ve said, those firetrucks and hoses and buildings weren’t cheap. If they let a couple of people slide, soon enough they wouldn’t be able to afford the upkeep and everyone’s houses would burn.
I imagine the firefighters had a bitter satisfaction in knowing that they were correct, which might – might – have been enough to offset the cries of wailing children and shrieking families. But it was an ugly balance: this one crying child would be many more screaming children if everyone in town realized they could cheat the firemen. Who would be left then?
There were genuine excuses, of course. Some people thought they were covered by another district. Others were poor. But again, everyone lies when their house is on fire, and how would you sort the actual hardship cases from the short-sighted folks who thought they could pull one over on you? When your bedroom is going up in ashes and smoke, every person in the world will tell you whatever they think you want to hear. And again, who wants to pay money for something they think won’t happen to them?
The fire engines didn’t come free. Someone had to pay.
Eventually, Fairbanks moved to a system where the fireman’s charge was part of the insurance that was mandated by the banks. That was probably nicer, and the firemen haven’t had to stand idle at the flames for decades now. But until the banks forced everyone to play fair, the firemen had occasional long nights of the soul.
They knew the awful truth: sometimes, to protect everything and to teach the right people the right lessons, you had to let it all burn.