California wildfires: Rich people hire private firefighters to tackle blazes

Most firms working directly with homeowners do not advertise it widely, says one boss

Ethan Varian
Friday 01 November 2019 15:13
California wildfire: Homes burn in San Bernardino County as fresh blaze breaks out

You can now add firefighting to the list of the ways that the wealthy are different from the rest of the world.

The rich are not fighting their own fires, for the most part. But they are hiring private firms to supplement the firefighters provided by state and local governments.

These teams, depending on whom you ask, are either part of the dystopian systemic inequality in fire-ravaged California or an extra, necessary service beyond what public agencies can provide.

Don Holter is an owner of Mt Adams Wildfire, a private contractor in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Sacramento. Most of his business comes from contracts with federal agencies, but his company is one of only five private firms in California that he knows of that work directly for homeowners.

Most do not advertise the service widely, he said, instead relying on word of mouth. “It’s not who you are, it’s who you know,” Mr Holter said.

Mt Adams Wildfire offers short-term “on call” wildfire protection for families and neighbourhood associations in northern California and eastern Washington. Last year, the company was on call for close to 90 days, Mr Holter said.

The service can cost up to $3,000 (£2,300) a day.

The majority of private fire crews work for insurance companies like Chubb, USAA and Safeco, which often provide fire mitigation services to their policyholders in high-risk fire areas without extra charge.

But most insurance-contracted crews do not actually fight the flames. They focus on making homes more fireproof by installing sprinkler systems, fire breaks and fire-blocking gels.

Firefighters with Mt. Adams Wildfire will battle wildfires threatening homes, Mr Holter said on the phone from a job in South Lake Tahoe.

Private firefighting is not new. In the United States, government agencies including the National Forest Service have contracted with private crews to fight and prevent wildfires since at least the 1980s.

What has changed is that contractors are beginning to hire out their services to homeowners directly, as well. It follows that some security firms see a new business opportunity.

Chris Dunn is the founder of Covered 6, a private security firm outside Los Angeles that contracts with homeowners in nearby Malibu and Hidden Hills. He said he is planning to cross-train his security guards to fight fires and hopes to offer a subscription-based fire protection service by next summer.

Ever-increasing wildfires are costing Californians hundreds of billions of dollars. Taxes in the state are already high, and insurance rates for homeowners in high-risk fire areas have soared.

On top of that, utility customers will soon be on the hook for over $10bn (£7.7bn) in extra charges to help companies cover wildfire damage.

One of those companies, Pacific Gas & Electric, already charges some of the highest electricity rates in the country. The company has been harshly criticised for pre-emptive blackouts this month that have left many without power for days.

It is also in bankruptcy proceedings to address liabilities resulting from recent fires started, in part, by its ageing equipment, including the inferno last year that engulfed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people.

Horse seems to go back to save others during California fire

Residents in the wealthy enclave of Hidden Hills, who already pay for Mr Dunn’s security company, plan to spend even more to protect their gated community. The city has earmarked $5m (£3.6m) to bury hundreds of feet of overhead power lines and plans to eventually move all electricity cables underground.

Last year’s devastating Woolsey Fire, one of the largest on record in Los Angeles County, was a big factor. The nearly 2,000 residents of Hidden Hills, where celebrities such as Drake, Jessica Simpson, Howie Mandel and members of the Kardashian family have homes, had to evacuate during the blaze on 8 November.

At first, flames appeared to safely pass by, so firefighters left the area to fight the fire in nearby Malibu, where at least 400 homes were destroyed. But by the next afternoon, strong winds had pushed flames across a wildlife preserve back toward Hidden Hills.

“We didn’t have any firetrucks left,” said Lilian Darling Holt, a resident of 40 years and a member of the Hidden Hills community emergency response team. “We basically had to fend for ourselves.”

Armed with pool pumps and fire hoses, residents and Covered 6 security guards held the fire at bay long enough for Cal Fire air tankers to arrive that evening and drop pink fire retardant around the edge of the city.

Although the Woolsey Fire ultimately burned more than 96,000 acres across Los Angeles County and Ventura County, in the end, only one structure in Hidden Hills, a barn, was lost.

The story was picked up differently in the media, however, after TMZ reported that Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West had hired private firefighters to save their mansion.

Quickly, the internet was flooded with arguments about the celebrity power couple’s personal fire crew, with critics saying that the privatisation of wildfire services undermines what should be a public good.

Later that month, Kardashian West appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, seemingly to defend the action.

“They saved our home and saved our neighbourhood,” she said. “I had them make sure they controlled every house on the edge. So it wasn’t just my home that I said take care of. I said: ‘Take care of everything’”.

But according to interviews with Hidden Hills residents and city officials, the reality was more complicated. When flames threatened, such a firefighting team was nowhere to be found.

It was not until at least a day later that a crew arrived at the Kardashian-West home and began spraying its own retardant, said Mr Dunn of Covered 6. “I know because I logged them in the gate,” he added.

Steve Freedland, who was the Hidden Hills mayor at the time and now is a member of the City Council, said: “The story about Kim and Kanye sending private fighters to save Hidden Hills – that was completely untrue. That really played no part.” Representatives for Kardashian West declined to comment for this article.

Many in California, most notably writer Mike Davis, the author of City of Quartz and the essay The Case for Letting Malibu Burn, have questioned the logic of protecting homes in extremely fire-prone regions in the first place.

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Davis and others have argued that, at least when it is public agencies fighting the fires, it is an unfair use of resources and that as wildfire season in California worsens, the state should reconsider the amount of new housing that can be built in high-risk areas. In recent years, some homeowners in fire-prone regions have begun to be dropped by their insurers.

A new report by Los Angeles County found that emergency services were seriously unprepared to respond to last year’s Woolsey Fire and that, in a fire that size, residents cannot always expect public agencies to protect them.

When the blaze broke out, many fire crews in the state were already busy fighting the Camp Fire in northern California and another fire in Ventura County. Some in Malibu also reported that firefighters failed to arrive during the blaze.

With that memory still fresh, Hidden Hills residents considered hiring a private firefighting service.

Instead, they bought their own fire engine. The pickup-size truck, which comes equipped with a water tank and hoses, is designed to fight blazes in rural areas. Local volunteers are training to use the vehicle to put out brush fires and hot spots.

“I want to make sure the next time people stay behind, we’re better equipped and not putting anyone’s safety at risk,” Mr Freedland said. “Having a truck that has water and a pumper on board is a game changer.”

The New York Times

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