Report: CAL FIRE prevented insurance company fire engines from accessing customers’ homes during Woolsey Fire

Satellite photo smoke Woolsey Fire
Satellite photo showing smoke from the Woolsey Fire at 10:42 a.m. PST November 9, 2018. Click to enlarge.

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.

Our opinion:

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.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “Report: CAL FIRE prevented insurance company fire engines from accessing customers’ homes during Woolsey Fire”

  1. I can say I spent some time working for Wildfire Defense Systems. I worked as a hotshot and on a structure department. I currently am going on 17 years in the fire service. I will say WDS has strict process on fire deployments. All engines and TFLD have King radios and cloning knowledge. All resources must check in with fire and obtain permission and radio freqs. Also it is standard practice to attend all briefings and clearly introduce themselves to DIVS and layout plans. The only time I ever had issues with accessing homes was when dealing with CAL FIRE. I never had an issue in evacuation areas accessing homes. The statement from CAL FIRE is an obvious way to shed responsibility for their decision to not allow capable, trained, qualified and prepared resources to help because they are not CAL FIRE or federal and county resources. SHAME on them.
    Now as a TFLD and DIVS on fires my time with WDS gave me a better understanding of how to use these resources to my advantage and free up my resources knowing certain homes are under care of insurance paid resources.

  2. I’ve only worked with Wildfire Defense and a few other insurance engines a handful of times. But, they always had comms and were professional most of the time (which is about as good as you get in the fire service). They show up to briefing after getting to spend the night in their hotel room and integrate themselves into the Divisions. Something I would like to see changed is that they bring some overhead. They aren’t truly integrated into our span of control which always leaves the TFLD or DIVS working about them when they may already be stretched thin at times.

    The one specific issue I had with them one a fire: they offered to set up their sprinkler kit on a home when our Structure Group was running low on kits (2 days prior to the fire’s arrival) as the fire got close resources were sent back in go start the pumps and found that this one particular house was now missing sprinklers. Found out they had taken their kit and moved it to another house of there’s that they felt was more threatened. We ended up saving the house without any problems, but their lack of communication definitely showed that there wasn’t much integration into the IMTs command.

    My opinion: begin addressing these problems instead of cutting these contractors off, cold turkey. That was unprofessional on calfire’s part and I hope they get their hand slapped pretty hard for the move. Contractors are always borrowing radios from comms…why can’t we let these guys borrow some as well. That being said, you will have a hard time convincing me that they are showing up without any BKs. The only way I can see Wildfire Defense not having comms is if calfire tried to run an incident like this on a digital system, that would be absolutely foolish.

  3. I concur with the previous comments posted. Regardless of the insatiable want/need/ desire to be able to track resources, how would that be a saving silver bullet? Now the distraction in the fire environment gets added too. Like the stuck gauge in an airplane, or a broke down engine, or a woefully inadequate or incorrect FA Pro run, the firefighting task goes away and the “ fix it “ task of the tracking devices ensues.

  4. Guess I don’t see the issue. CalFire is running th show, these are “private” resources of which CalFire has no knowledge of quals etc.
    If my home was threatened, could Uber come and pick me up in my driveway? jw


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