Lance Cranick lost almost everything: His high school letterman jacket. His football awards. Six guns. Three bows. His iPod. A flat-screen TV.

His grandfather Gene lost dozens of Zane Grey westerns. The scorched bones of the family’s dead dogs are curled in the rubble.

“It’s all because of me,” Cranick, 21 and unemployed, kept repeating. He had left the trash burning unattended in barrels in front of the house while he took a shower. Now his family’s house in this patch of rural Tennessee was ash. “I take full responsibility.”

But the debate over who’s responsible for the destruction at the Cranick place in South Fulton, Tenn., is no simple one. When Cranick called 911, the dispatcher told him that she’d send help right away. Ten minutes later, she said firefighters were not coming after all — because the family had not paid the city its annual $75 fire protection fee.

Fire engines did arrive at the Cranick property, but only because the flames from the barrels were spreading to their neighbor’s cornfield. And that family was paid up.

The firefighters protected the neighbor’s field and let the Cranicks’ home burn.

That act has resonated across the country as either an extreme example of how personal responsibility should be the basis of American democracy or a nightmarish incident that proves how far the country has strayed from its purpose as a place where people care for one another.

Next month, for example, Montgomery County, Md., voters will decide whether ambulance service should be included in taxes or paid for by health insurance. The proposal, approved by the County Council this year, would not deny service to the uninsured, but opponents say the plan nonetheless violates the compact that has defined the American system at least since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal: the idea of a safety net that supports all.

The Sept. 29 Tennessee incident is “what happens when you lose sight of what you’re really there for and money becomes the omnipotent god, rather than going in and saving people,” said Marcine Goodloe, head of the Montgomery County Volunteer Fire-Rescue Association. The fee would be borne by insurers rather than county residents directly, but Goodloe said it could discourage some from calling for help.

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett, a Democrat, said any link between the ambulance fee and the Tennessee case is “reaching for straws and a desperate argument to try to confuse the public.” He said that there’s a limit to how much taxes can be raised and that charging insurers for ambulance runs will help expand fire service.

Fire protection for all is an idea that stretches to Benjamin Franklin, an early advocate for volunteer fire corps. “The concept of not doing anything for a house that’s burning down, that’s something I don’t think Franklin would have agreed to,” said Edmund Morgan, a Yale historian who wrote a book on Franklin. “If you can help put it out, I think it’s your duty.”

Just south of the Tennessee-Kentucky line, on country roads that wind past a golf course and grain elevators, the Cranick fire remains a topic of fierce debate.

Obion County Mayor Benny McGuire worked with Gene Cranick at a nearby Goodyear plant for years and said he is a good man. But McGuire said that the county has no budget for fire protection and that people who live outside city limits must pay for fire service.

Fire coverage is like car insurance, he said: “You don’t pay it when you have a wreck; you pay it beforehand. The responsibility lies with the landowner. That’s the problem today. You don’t want to be responsible for nothing anymore. Nobody does.”

Now for the first time, Gene Cranick, 67, must contend with those who think he’s some sort of freeloader. He remembers paying up every other year except one. “But humans forget. It seems like I do more than I used to. I just don’t think they done right.”

He recalls picking up the fire bill as he headed out on vacation in his camper, the one he and his wife, Paulette, must now live in. The bill slipped his mind.

A couple of years back, when there was a chimney fire at his son Timothy’s house, the family hadn’t paid their fee but firefighters came anyway. The family paid up the next morning.

This time, Gene Cranick watched as flames melted his belongings. “I don’t have hard feelings toward the firemen, because they done what they was told to do,” he said.

That sentiment is not universal in the Cranick family. After the fire, Timothy Cranick went over to the South Fulton firehouse and struck the fire chief “in the face with his fist,” according to court documents. He was charged with aggravated assault.

South Fulton’s city manager, Jeff Vowell, said firefighters are barred from responding outside city limits to non-subscribers. “My heart goes out to these folks,” he said. “I’m not a robot.”

Neither are firefighters. “You don’t get into this to let them burn,” said one. ” ‘Sickening’ would be a good word, a decent word.”

Neighbors are torn over the incident. Retired teacher Laura Davis rushed to see whether the Cranicks needed help but wants a world in which people “suffer the consequences” of their actions.

A friend challenged Davis to think about what Jesus would do. “I don’t know that he’d put it out,” Davis said.

“Then she doesn’t know Jesus,” said neighbor DeAnna Reams. It was her field that finally drew firefighters into action.

Reams begged firefighters to save the Cranick house. Her husband offered to pay if they’d just put out the flames.

“It’s heartbreaking not to be able to help a neighbor,” Reams said. “That’s what we’re supposed to be able to do in this country.”