Agencies hired to protect assets look like first responders but, if a fire puts them in danger, they can become a liabilityFirefighters work to defend homes from an approaching wildfire in Sonoma, California. Photograph: Jim Urquhart/ReutersThe engines, big and small, came from all over the country to fight the Kincade fire in the Sonoma county wine region of California. There were trucks from Nevada, South Dakota, Colorado – and from the wildfire protection unit of home insurer AIG.As fires have increasingly encroached on development in California’s wildlands in recent years, communities are grappling with a new paradigm of risk. If the fire creates an existential crisis for people living in high-risk areas, it also creates one for the companies that insure their homes.Insurers of houses, timber and agriculture have contracted with private firefighting agencies for decades. But now, thanks to longer, more devastating fire seasons, the business is booming.While some wealthy communities and individuals have contracted their own private firefighting services to defend mansions on hilltops from flying embers, the majority of these agencies work on behalf of insurance companies. And as fire risk extends to more homes in California’s flammable brushland and forest, these crews are becoming a fixture in middle class neighborhoods. It is something of a return to a pre-American civil war model of pay-for-play firefighting, before the government employed first responders.Firefighters protect a Pacific Palisades area home in Los Angeles from the flames of a wildfire. Photograph: Christian Monterrosa/Associated Press“Any policyholder that would like to have wildfire services, all they need to do is shop from more than a dozen insurers out there that have these services,” said David Torgerson, president of Wildfire Defense Systems, a private firefighting firm. “It’s not a special policy. It’s not something that’s exclusive. It’s something that the insurance industry has found brings value.”Insured losses for the 2018 California wildfire season topped $12bn. Insurance companies are looking for any way to reduce payouts in the future, whether by raising rates, dropping coverage, or putting new risk mitigation measures into place – including, in some cases, these kinds of private fire crews.The services they provide focus primarily on fire prevention mitigation – cutting back vegetation, creating clear defensible space around structures and providing consultations on other home hardening work. As in the Kincade fire, private crews also sometimes access mandatory evacuation zones during active wildfires to protect valuable assets while the embers are flying – a move that makes some government firefighters and local authorities uneasy.“Generally speaking, from our perspective, we have found that private fire crews are not first responders,” said Carroll Wills, communications director for California Professional Firefighters.Firefighters watch from a home in the Pacific Palisades area as a helicopter drops water on a wildfire. Photograph: Christian Monterrosa/Associated PressPrivate fire crews travel into evacuation zones in trucks equipped with water tanks and hoses and retardant, looking nearly identical to their government counterparts – though their sole task is to protect specific insured homes.Torgerson, president of Wildfire Defense Systems, noted that while his teams are capable of fighting fires, “that’s not our mission in this case”.“Our task with the insurance industry is more so to prepare the homes and secure them, prior to and after the fire, and contribute to the survivability,” he said.“Our [wildfire protection unit] teams are not private firefighters,” said Matt Gallagher, a spokesman for AIG – yet they station engines with full tanks in evacuation zones during wildfires that can turn dangerous within seconds.Lawmakers grew concerned that civilians would see these private engines and get a false sense of security about remaining in evacuation zones. Government firefighters voiced complaints about rolling onto a scene, believing the area to be fully evacuated, only to find private fire crews who had not alerted incident command.In the 2018 Woolsey fire, Kim Kardashian famously hired private firefighters to save her $50m Calabasas mansion – a crew that, said Wills, never told anyone of their plans. “That’s just incredibly dangerous,” Wills said. A helicopter drops water on a brush fire during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California. Photograph: Ringo HW Chiu/Associated PressPrior to the 2018 fire season, California lawmakers passed a bill requiring private crews to alert public incident command and obtain permission before entering an evacuation zone. The law codified a best-practice guideline put in place in 2008. Torgerson, who founded his company that same year, said his company has always followed these directives, and will continue to do so now that the law is in effect.“We’ve responded to more than 650 wildfires since 2008, and more than 97% of the time, we’ve been granted access to the evacuation zones to conduct these insurance missions,” he said. “We’ve coordinated with hundreds of incident command teams.”Torgerson said he does not know why his crews were not permitted 3% of the time.“We’re fully qualified under state and federal certification and training processes,” he said. “We are the same resources that the federal government hires.”But their mission is fundamentally different. Government firefighters are tasked with saving life, first and foremost, so if the fires turn and the private crews require rescue, “they are a liability”, Wills said.“We understand that when people see these massive fires, there’s a tendency to say, ‘Well, more is better’,” Wills said. “From our perspective, more really isn’t better. The more that we need is more fully trained and battle-tested, front-line firefighters and emergency responders.”
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