Burn, baby, burn

I watched a neighbor’s house burn in 1991. Firefighters were on the scene fast, breaking through a second-story window attempting to save a child.

A house fire is a mom’s worst fear. How do I get the kids out in time? Would I be able to save dogs, hamsters, family photos?

It feels good to know that the local fire department would zoom to the rescue should I dial 911 for a fire. I take fire protection for granted. I shouldn’t.

In Reno, more than 70 firefighters lost their jobs last year. Stations are rotating service brown-outs. Though Washoe County and Reno are working on some joint plans to eventually increase fire protection in suburban and rural areas, for now, things aren’t looking great. A study of fire service responses showed it takes around eight minutes to respond to a fire within the McCarran Loop. It takes 20 minutes for a response in rural areas. That’s a bit long for comfort.

The city of Reno, of course, is broke. Leaders are facing a $10 million budget gap for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Reno’s remaining firefighters are slated for 7.5 percent pay and benefit cuts.

In the news recently, the city hopes to hire back 10 firefighters for two years using a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Washoe County obtained a $2.5 million federal grant to fund a fire station at Arrowcreek.

Federal grants? That’s more public money, coming from the same U.S. government that almost shut down recently as Republicans and Democrats argued over budget cuts, women’s health funding and clean air regulations. Sigh.

National, state and local governments are low on funds, and so are we. Millions of Americans are unemployed. Houses are in foreclosure everywhere—but Nevada’s leading the nation, with nearly twice the foreclosure rate of No. 2 on the list, Arizona. Dismal times hurt everyone.

Everyone except billionaires David and Charles Koch. The oil giants are worth $21.5 billion apiece. They are generous—if you’re the Tea Party, a right-wing lobbyist or far-right politician. The Kochs give millions to advance anti-government causes like deregulating businesses and abolishing Social Security, public schools, the FBI and CIA. The Kochs really hate government.

A New Yorker story last year included the math: The Koch brothers funneled $196 million in donations to ultra-conservative politicians, Tea Party groups, lobbyists and fiscally anal campaigns.

Not hard to trace the Kochs’ investment with the nation’s newly acquired loathing of public employees. Now we distrust teachers but appreciate hard-working billionaires who should not be forced by mean socialists to pay taxes. More than ever, we suck up to corporations without asking them to think about pesky labor issues or environmental impacts.

Meanwhile, the Democrats are finding it hard to argue with a well-funded insidious messaging machine. Obama’s trying. Last week, he got a little feisty about ending tax breaks for the rich.

The Kochs aren’t the only smooth operators. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis showed corporate profits reached record highs in 2010. General Electric made a cool $14.2 billion. That should be good for everyone, right? Not really. The New York Times reported GE not only pays no taxes—zero dollars—but it actually nabbed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion from taxpayers, as well.

I have a problem watching public money line the pockets of General Electric and its ilk. It leaves our cities with no dough left for firefighters.

What will happen next? Privatize fire services, I suppose. Charge everyone a monthly rate or sell pre-paid fire response credits to ensure firefighters will arrive if your house ends up in flames. The Koch brothers are probably polishing their own fleet of shiny new trucks.