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.

Cartoon: insurance company engines protect policy holders’ houses

wildfire cartoon chubb insurance comany enginesSam Wallace has created another cartoon about wildland fire. This one refers to the Chubb insurance company sending fire engines to protect the homes of their policy holders during the Fourmile fire last month near Boulder, Colorado. At his web site, Mr. Wallace wrote this about the cartoon:

This is not a jab at firemen or the fire department. They do a great job. This is for the private fire fighters hired by insurance companies. (Extra special coverage, as long as you have paid for it.) Why would they help, if you were not a policy holder. Some how it does not seem right to me.

Earlier we showed you some of Mr. Wallace’s other cartoons about wildfire. His work appears at the Longmont, Colorado Times Call and at his own web site. The cartoon is published here with his permission.

Insurance company sent engines to protect homes at Fourmile fire

The Chubb insurance company, which specializes in policies for high-valued homes, dispatched fire engines to the Fourmile fire near Boulder, Colorado earlier this month. Due to a memorandum of understanding they signed with Boulder County earlier this year, the company was able to send engines directly to their policy holders’ homes after obtaining clearance through the Incident Command Post.

Customers of the company that have homes valued in excess of $1 million are eligible to sign up for the free service that will send privately owned fire engines to their homes if threatened by a wildfire. Chubb contracts with Wildfire Defense Systems out of Red Lodge, Montana, which provides crews for emergency fuel mitigation, zone sprinkler system setup, fuel break preparation and fire blocking gel application.

WDS owns Type 3, 4, and 6 wildland engines that are outfitted and inspected per Federal Best Value standards. According to their web site they also have access to a “network of established and qualified engine companies operating under WDS supervision”. Currently these services are offered to qualified policy holders in 13 western states.

The Fourmile fire, which destroyed 169 homes and caused an estimated $217 million in damages, was the first wildfire in Colorado at which insurance company engines worked alongside government-paid fire resources. The company was not completely successful at the fire, since of the 13 customer homes affected, 10 survived but 3 burned.

We have written about these services provided by Chubb previously, HERE and HERE. And, we have no association with them or WDS.

Wildfire news, June 30, 2009

Evergreen files suit against Erickson

Evergreen, which operates the 747 “Supertanker” as well as three Sikorsky Skycrane helicopters, claims it has not been able to fly its Skycranes at times because Erickson Air-Crane has limited their access to parts and other services. They say they have not been able to bid on some aviation contracts because their helicopters were grounded, waiting for parts.

An article in the Mail Tribune has more details. [link no longer works]

Thanks Kelly.


Contracting out fire protection

On June 6 we told you about the private fire suppression company in Carmel Valley, California, Golden Valley Fire Suppression. An article at covers the recent trend in privatizing fire protection, including the Golden Valley company.

Here is a brief excerpt:

Privatization of fire protection, especially in the Western United States, has emerged in several forms. In some instances, private contractors are hired by state and local government to deal with extreme fire emergencies. The National Wildfire Suppression Association, formed in 1991, represents over 150 private firms that employ firefighters and equipment to assist locally on an “as needed’’ basis.

Quite a different form of private fire protection is being funded by large insurance companies. Last year,Chubb Corp.began offering fire protection to its clients in 13 Western states as long as their homes have a replacement value of at least $1 million. According to an Associated Press report, Fireman’s Fund has retained private fire fighting companies in California; AIG employs private firms to dispense fire-retardant foam on valuable homes as soon as there is a wildfire threat for clients in the 200 wealthiest Western zip codes.


State trooper’s car burns at vegetation fire

Near Salina, Kansas, a state trooper responded to a report of a fire involving a wheat field and a combine. After he arrived he got out of his car to assess the situation, then looked back and saw that his car was on fire.

The report from KSAL does not say if the vegetation fire ignited the car which may have been parked at an inappropriate location, or if the car was parked over vegetation which could have been touched off by heat from the car’s catalytic converter.

Thanks Dick


British Columbia to train 750 as firefighters

From 250 News

VICTORIA – British Columbia will pay up to 750 unemployed workers to take wildfire suppression training to enhance the Province’s capacity to fight and contain forest fires, Forests and Range Minister Pat Bell
announced today.

“This is a great opportunity for First Nations, unemployed forest workers and other individuals to upgrade their skills and experience,” said Bell. “Residents of rural communities understand the threat that wildfires pose. They want to be part of the solution and we want to make sure they have the training to stay safe if called upon to protect homes, businesses, and the forest resource they depend on.”

The Emergency Firefighter Training program will pay qualified individuals $15 per hour to take the S-100 Basic Fire Suppression and Safety training course that prepares individuals to become emergency firefighters. The two-day course is a comprehensive introduction to wildfire suppression work and combines classroom theory with a hands-on field component.

Once trained, individuals with a valid S-100 certificate can be placed on an availability list to assist fire centres and fire suppression contractors in the event that existing resources are fully deployed and
additional contingency firefighting resources are needed. When deployed, emergency firefighters earn $15 per hour and typically perform mop-up, patrols, camp demobilization and other support
functions under the supervision of experienced personnel.


Wildfire news, June 1, 2009

Distribution of forest stimulus funds in Montana

The Missoulian has the details of the confusion around the distribution of federal stimulus funds for national forests in Montana.  It turns out it’s kind of tricky to spend $57 million overnight.

Lightning in CA and OR

Lightning has moved into northern California and Oregon and could continue challenging firefighters with more activity until June 4. Over 900 strikes started at least 10 fires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northwest California. At least three fires caused by lightning were discovered Saturday in Yosemite National Park. And in central Oregon 20 fires have been reported since Friday. The largest fire in Oregon, the Green Grass fire, has burned about 2,000 acres south of the John Day River.

Let’s hope this is not going to be a replay of the Siege of ’08 when lightning started more than 1,000 fires in northern California, filling the air with smoke for months on end. Rain with the recent lightning is reducing the chance that this will be a months-long firefighting event, unlike last year when much of the lightning was dry.

Wildfire threat influences home-buying decisions

A survey conducted by the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies found that 32 percent of the respondents now living in a a wildfire risk area would not purchase another home in an area where wildfires have occurred. Seventy percent of them claim to have removed all dead or flammable vegetation from around their homes.

The Chubb group has partnered with a private firefighting outfit, Wildfire Defense Systems, Inc., to protect the homes of policy holders in 13 western states.

Rain slows Broken Snowshoe fire

Rain on Sunday slowed the spread of this fire near McGrath, Alaska to the point where crews are being released. Tony Doty, the Incident Commander, has a few more details on his Twitter feed. The last size reported was 25,757 acres.

Fire news roundup, July 16, 2008

Basin fire, Big Sur, California

The fire was relatively quiet yesterday with the exception of the Pine Valley campground vicinity and the slopover in the White Oaks area. The fire crews have apparently picked up the slopover on the southeast side across the Rodeo Flats trail.

Cold Springs Fire, Mt. Adams, Washington

The fire is burning along the lower slopes of the mountain, with the most intense fire activity being on the south and east sides. It is burning into an area with some roads and large clear cuts on the east flank which may give the firefighters more options. On the map below, Mt. Adams is in the foreground, with Mt. Rainier in the background. The fire is 7,160 7,604 acres and is 5% contained.

Arsonist(s) at Rainbow gathering, Big Sandy, WY

Eight fires have plagued the gathering of the Rainbow Family at the annual get together held this year east of Big Sandy, Wyoming in the southern Wind River Mountains on BLM land. Investigators have determined that at least one of the fires that occurred near the gathering was arson, but all of them were quickly suppressed by the 20 firefighters that have been staged nearby. Up to 7,000 participants have been camping in the area, but that number has now declined to about 100 who are cleaning up and restoring the site.
View Larger Map

Firefighters rescue injured horse, Mill Fire, California

A fire crew constructing line on the Mill fire, part of the Soda Complex on the Mendocino National Forest, discovered an injured horse Tuesday morning. The firefighters, who were preparing a line for a backfire operation, found that the horse appeared to be dehydrated and had some abrasions and injuries to his front legs. He may have been in this condition for several days. They think he was spooked by the fire and ran off during the initial lightening bust several weeks ago.

Incident Commander Dave Fiorella placed a resource order for a local veterinarian and told the firefighters to prepare for a rescue mission. Dr. Sherry Cronin D.V.M of Covelo was flown by helicopter into the area to assess the horse’s condition prior to rescue.

The horse received some special attention from the fire crew, who brought him water and gave him apples from their sack lunches. After a few hours the horse showed signs of improvement and Dr. Cronin determined the injuries were minor enough that the firefighters could walk him out to a ranch a few miles away where he was then placed in a temporary shelter. The fire crew affectionately named the horse “Mr. Ed”.

A photo of the horse was not available, but I found one of a dehydrated water tender on the same fire getting a drink.

Excellent fire pictures has a great assortment of photographs that have been taken in the last few weeks on fires. Here’s one example, taken by David McNew on the Gap fire near Santa Barbara, but a visit to the site to see the entire collection is highly recommended.

Northern California fires

  • Iron Complex: This series of 28 fires west of Junction City had burned 45,257 acres and was 45 percent contained Tuesday.
  • Lime Complex: The 92 fires in this complex have scorched 80,469 acres and were 60 percent contained Tuesday.
  • Motion fire: This 21,931 acre fire west of Redding is 50% contained.
  • Moon fire: The fire has burned 28,899 acres and is 85% contained.

Insurance companies hiring their own firefighters


Some insurance companies are finding that it is less expensive to hire their own firefighters to protect high value properties than to pay the replacement cost if they burn in a fire. Here is an excerpt from the Herald Extra:

New Jersey-based Chubb Corp., which employs Breglia, began offering free fire protection to its clients in 13 Western states in March. Already 11,000 homeowners have signed up, more than a third of those in wealthy and fire-prone enclaves like Lake Tahoe and Marin County. The company plans to expand the service to other states before the start of next fire season.


Chubb hired Montana-based Wildfire Defense Systems Inc. to protect homes with a replacement value of $1 million or more. The company is now subcontracting a pool of 50 fire engines throughout the West dedicated exclusively to Chubb policyholders.

Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company donated $18 million over four years to support public fire departments. But this year it jumped into the private firefighting business, too, joining with Sacramento-based Fire Stop and two southern California companies.

Fire Stop, with nine fire engines, has doubled its employees over the last year. The company is also in talks to acquire helicopter support.


But inside the command trailers at the Big Sur fire camp, surrounded by a sea of tents, portable toilets and smoke-filled air, Thom Walsh looked skeptical.

“Insurance company fire engines need to stay out of our way,” said Walsh, leader of the U.S. Forest Service Resource Unit. “We don’t know who they are or where they are. They’re like the private mercenaries in Iraq.”


Thanks, Dick, for the tip.