Think firemen provide a public good? At least in rural areas, think again:

MINNEAPOLIS – Carl Berg failed to pay a $25 annual fee for rural fire protection and, as a result, firefighters let his house burn to the ground last month near International Falls, Minn.

Along with his daughter and a grandson, Berg escaped the fire.

“I lost everything else,” he said. “Stand and watch it burn was all I could do. . . . They should have put the thing out, but they didn’t.”

Some area residents are expressing outrage about a system that can let that happen – and about a dispute involving the International Falls Fire Department, Koochiching County and the Rural Fire Protection Association, which collects annual fees and pays the city for each fire it fights outside city limits.

“You either buy it or you don’t have it,” said Don Billig, the association’s secretary.

One puzzle is why the fire department didn’t offer to put it out for an “emergency fee.” That way, you could either pay your $25 annual fee, or wait for a fire and pay $10,000. Don’t have $10,000? You could give new meaning to the phrase “fire sale” and sell the fire department your house while it’s still worth something.

I wonder if that would hold up in court. I think not.