For the last 12 years we have been aware of insurance companies sending fire engines to protect high-valued homes covered by their policies when a wildfire approaches. Companies such as Chubb figure keeping a multi-million dollar home from burning is less expensive than paying to rebuild it, so they contract with Wildfire Defense and other companies to send firefighters to their customers properties when smoke is in the air.
The tricky part is intermixing the private crews with the existing incident management organization. Some jurisdictions view the insurance company crews as personnel that need to be protected, rather than fellow firefighters engaged in the fire fight. This became very evident during the Woolsey Fire in November when CAL FIRE prohibited the private engine crews from accessing their customers’ homes, including mansions in Malibu, California.
Below is an excerpt from the Malibu Times:
…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.
Private engine crews can be helpful in keeping certain high-value structures from burning during a rapidly spreading wildfire when there are not enough government resources to protect every home. However, if they have no communication with the incident management organization which does not have any knowledge of their location, mission, or capabilities, it can throw a monkey wrench into an already chaotic situation.
CAL FIRE, the U.S. Forest Service, and the other large organizations involved in wildfire suppression need to sit down with the insurance companies and agree on some standard operating procedures. The Incident Management Team needs to know what the private crews are doing and where, and the private crews need to have direct communication with the Team.
One day, when all firefighting resources are carrying equipment that makes it possible to track their location, this will become much easier — and safer. The federal and state agencies need to get off their butts and implement these tracking systems.