Firefighters for hire
July 23, 2008
Business is booming for private firefighting companies as drought and soaring temperatures combine to create one of the worst fire seasons in years across the West.
Rather than absorbing the cost of burnt homes, some insurance companies are hiring private fire fighters to protect property they insure.
“Very wealthy people like to live in places that are naturally perilous,” said American International Group spokesman Peter Tulupman. “With the fires right now, we’re getting a lot of calls about fire protection.”
But some fire officials are concerned with coordination in the field and a potential trend toward privatization will give protection to the wealthy, but leave other homeowners vulnerable to the flames.
“Life has to come first, then property,” said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We know the number of private contractors is on the rise. If they communicate with us, they could be an asset. If not, they’re a big liability.”
But homeowners in the Tahoe Basin area are already responding positively to the added measure of safety, said David Torgerson, president of Wildfire Defense Systems, who contracts for Chubb Personal Insurance.
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Chubb hired Montana-based Wildfire Defense Systems Inc. to protect homes with a replacement value of $1 million or more.
The company is now subcontracting a pool of 50 fire engines throughout the West dedicated exclusively to Chubb policyholders.
Already over 11,000 homeowners signed up ” including some in the Tahoe Basin ” since the program was made available in the first week of June, said Scott Spencer, senior vice president of Chubb.
“The response we’ve gotten has been really wonderful from our policy holders,” Torgerson said. “We’ve already really made a difference this year.”
Wildfire Defense Systems has already had three engines at the Big Sur fire, and three up in Paradise, he said.
The engines and personnel aren’t first responders like public fire districts, he said, but focus on education and home preservation.
“We can do fuel mitigation, put up sprinklers, or apply fire-blocking gel,” he said.
And as for coordinating with local fire fighting agencies, Torgerson said these are the same contractors that have been working for the U.S. Forest Service for decades.
Ann Westling, spokeswoman for Tahoe National Forest, said they use contractors regularly.
“Everything from a dozer to a contract engine crew, they provide a whole variety of services,” Westling said.
In the Truckee Tahoe area, Calfire hasn’t had any interactions with private contractors yet, said Brad Harris, unit chief of the Nevada-Yuba-Placer unit.
“We’ve had no fires that required us to bring in contractors, they’ve been used statewide, but here there has been no need,” Harris said.
Likewise Harris said he hasn’t had any experience locally with private contractors working for insurance companies.
“This is going to be new for us, we haven’t had the opportunity to work with them and see how that plays out,” Harris said.
Communication between private and public firefighters will be key, Harris said.
“We want to make sure we’re protecting life and property,” Harris said.
Truckee Fire Chief Bryce Keller agreed, saying that coordination is crucial, but was otherwise neutral on the subject.
Neither Harris nor Keller reported any issue with private fire companies competing with their agencies for new recruits.
“We’ve had no problem with them drawing away firefighters,” Harris said.
” The Associated Press contributed to this report