CAL FIRE Denied Access to Private Firefighting Crews Sent by Insurance CompaniesIt is statewide policy not to admit ‘civilians’ during an evacuation order, and that includes private firefighters.
A number of Malibu residents’ homeowners insurance policies include the use of private firefighting companies that work independently from county firefighters. The private crews protect specific homes under contract with insurance companies, and attempt to arrive ahead of the flames. These companies have been around since the 1980s, but have become even more common and in-demand as the risk of major wildfires in California has increased over the years.
The private crews emphasize doing fire prevention work as quickly as possible around an individual house in advance of the fire. They will rake leaves, clear gutters, remove debris from roofs, close windows and vents, spray retardant on brush, and, in some cases, spray the house with gel to protect it from flying embers. They’ll also remove stacked wood, clear brush and patio furniture cushions, and anything else around the house that’s highly flammable. Their fleet trucks carry water for putting out hot spots.
While benefits seem obvious for insurance companies, statewide fire officials point out they complicate firefighting efforts for central command, since they cannot communicate readily with rank-and-file crews. Now, in the fallout of the Woolsey Fire—where resources were spread so thin many homes did not see any fire engines at all—questions are being asked about why private crews were turned away.
Malibu resident Ron Krisel, who is insured by USAA (only available to active, retired and honorably discharged members of the U.S. military), was eligible for the services of a private firefighting crew. However, he was notified by USAA that when their crew checked in with the joint command for the Woolsey Fire, they were told by CAL FIRE that they would not be allowed to come into Malibu and, something to the effect that, if they disobeyed, they would never be allowed in during a fire from now on.
Krisel’s house burned down the day after the fire came through—a casualty of still-blowing embers. He feels strongly that if the private crew contracted by USAA had been allowed to come in, his house would’ve been saved—they would’ve kept an eye on the burning embers and hot spots and put them out before the house caught fire. County firefighters never showed up.
When The Malibu Times contacted Scott McLean, public information officer for CAL FIRE Woolsey Fire, to ask why, he said he wasn’t familiar with this particular incident, and would only be able to talk about their policy in general.
McLean verified that private fire companies must check in with the authorities at the joint command to show documentation from the insurance company and the address of the specific house.
“It’s a common thing—no big deal. We rarely turn them away,” McLean said. “But if there’s an evacuation order for the area the house is in, they cannot come in.” That’s the most obvious reason why the crew coming to Krisel’s house was turned away—the Malibu evacuation order must have already been in effect.
McLean explained they consider private firefighters to be civilians, regardless of the firefighting experience and training they may have. In addition, he said they “do not just drop hoses on the ground and start fighting a fire” the way county firefighters do. “They’re not part of the [official] fire service” or chain of command.
“From the standpoint of first responders, they are not viewed as assets to be deployed. They’re viewed as a responsibility,” Carroll Wills, communications director for California Professional Firefighters, a labor union representing rank-and-file firefighters in the state, told the LA Times.
During a wildfire, the private crews say they may not be able to visit every home insured under the program, but prioritize based on the fire’s movement and where homes have a high likelihood of being destroyed without their assistance.
As the danger of fire has increased in recent years, so has the use of private firefighters by insurance companies like USAA, Chubb, AIG, Liberty Mutual, Safeco and Nationwide. While some offer the service as an “opt-in” benefit that costs extra money, others, like USAA and Chubb, have made it a standard part of their policy.
One of the largest private firefighting companies, Wildfire Defense Systems, has contracts with a dozen different insurance companies, but doesn’t contract with individuals. When the Woolsey, Hill and Camp fires broke out last month, they deployed 53 firetrucks, more than 100 firefighters and 50 workers in California, David Torgerson, president, told the LA Times. He said only about five percent of such companies contract with individuals.
For insurance companies, the benefits of private firefighters are obvious—it’s cheaper to send them out to save a $5 million property than it would be to replace the house and its contents.