Wildfires bring demand for private firefighters

July 15, 2008 6:56:17 PM PDT
Seated behind the wheel of a fire engine, Dave Breglia follows a map dotted with expensive homes threatened by wildfires. His job: protect high-end real estate and save an insurance company millions of dollars. "I never know where I'll go next or how long I'll be there," said Breglia, a private contractor who was in Paradise, about 80 miles north of Sacramento. "But this season I bet I'll be on the road until October."

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. Some contractors are even acquiring their own fire engines and flying helicopters.

But some fire officials question the reliance on private crews, raising doubts about their training and whether they could get in the way of government firefighters. Others are concerned that a 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."

By Tuesday, most of the blazes started by a huge lightning storm more than three weeks ago had been extinguished, and some of the largest fires were nearing containment. Flames have blackened more than 1,300 square miles in places like Big Sur and other parts of California. About 100 homes have been destroyed and many others damaged.

"We've really turned a corner," said Daniel Berlant, a state fire department spokesman. "But we have to remember this is just July, and our biggest fires are historically in September and October."

State officials said 288 blazes were still active, most in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.

The move toward private fire crews is in some ways a throwback to earlier era, when homeowners in colonial times joined together to form "fire clubs" that protected members' homes. Early fire departments were often supported by insurance companies that had a vested interest in preventing disaster.

In modern times, timber and oil companies have used private firefighters for years, but now insurers concerned about the high cost of home replacement are hiring private contractors, too.

New Jersey-based Chubb Corp., which employs Breglia, began offering free fire protection to its clients in 13 Western states in March. Already 11,000 homeowners have signed up, more than a third of those in wealthy and fire-prone enclaves like Lake Tahoe and Marin County. The company plans to expand the service to other states before the start of next fire season.

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.

Fireman's Fund Insurance Company donated $18 million over four years to support public fire departments. But this year it jumped into the private firefighting business, too, joining with Sacramento-based Fire Stop and two southern California companies.

Fire Stop, with nine fire engines, has doubled its employees over the last year. The company is also in talks to acquire helicopter support.

"Insurance companies are hot on this," said Chris Dusa of Fire Stop. "Public firefighters wait until the bell goes off and then they go out to the fire. We do things more proactively by creating a moat around the property before the fire gets there."

American International Group Inc., or AIG, sends pickup trucks carrying fire retardant to spray down property in 200 wealthy zip codes, including homes in Aspen, Colo., and Malibu.

Enrollment in AIG's Private Client Group shot up 60 percent after wildfire burned large tracts of homes and land in San Diego and Los Angeles counties last fall.

The blaze in San Diego County in October 2007 cost insurance companies more than $1.3 billion in lost property.

"Very wealthy people like to live in places that are naturally perilous," said AIG spokesman Peter Tulupman. "With the fires right now, we're getting a lot of calls about fire protection."

The explosive growth of private contractors concerns officials at the International Association of Fire Fighters, the union representing the vast majority of the nearly 300,000 publicly funded firefighters in the country.

"In a fire, if there are houses, there is higher risk," said Lori Moore-Merrell, a researcher for the union. "We don't know much about the contractors' level of training. And fire protection should be available to all citizens regardless of how much money they have."

Contractors say they often come from public firefighting backgrounds, where they were trained in the protocols of communication and command in a wildfire. And they say they are not in business to replace public firefighters.

"We know how the system works, and we do everything possible not to put anyone in harm's way," said Ron Sparks, a contractor fresh off a seven-day stint protecting a home in Big Sur insured by the Fireman's Fund.

"We're out there to supplement the effort and protect property, not to be battling flames on the fire line," Sparks added.

But inside the command trailers at the Big Sur fire camp, surrounded by a sea of tents, portable toilets and smoke-filled air, Thom Walsh looked skeptical.

"Insurance company fire engines need to stay out of our way," said Walsh, leader of the U.S. Forest Service Resource Unit. "We don't know who they are or where they are. They're like the private mercenaries in Iraq."

Back in Paradise, firefighting efforts have already cost taxpayers more than $56 million. The 47-year-old Breglia waits with his fire engine, tracking the flames and glancing at his GPS map.

If the wind changes or the fire jumps the bulldozed trenches, Breglia will be there to spray fire retardant gel onto a few homes.

Then he'll hit the road again, headed for the next fire.


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