Wildfire protection becomes growing business

Wildfire protection becomes growing business

10 December 2007

published by www.signonsandiego.com

USA — Whether San Diego’s recurring pattern of firestorm devastation has resulted from underfunded firefighters, inept air support or a backcountry housing boom, one thing is becoming clear.

Homeowners are turning to private enterprise for protection.

Earlier this year, for example, Solana Beach resident John Page paid $16,000 to have a fire-retardant spray system installed in the backyard of his four-bedroom home, which backs up against a canyon in the San Elijo preserve.

“I’m not thrilled about the expense,” Page says. “I wouldn’t recommend this for every house.”

Yet, just weeks after the installation was completed, Page said his family got a Reverse 911 telephone call advising them to evacuate from the rampaging Witch Creek fire, then roaring through Rancho Bernardo. It was Oct. 22.

Page turned on his new system and watched as three big-gun nozzles sprang to life, spraying a translucent fire retardant over much of his house and about 65 feet into the canyon below. The 315-gallon tank emptied in about 10 minutes. Then he evacuated with his wife and daughter and the family’s two dogs.

As it turned out, the fire never reached their home. But as he drove away that morning, Page said, “we felt confident that we had done everything we could to protect our house.”

Page, who has owned the 3,000-square-foot home since 1995, had also replaced his shake cedar roof and removed pine trees, huge climbing vines and other plants that were deemed too incendiary by a local fire official.

Such installations have become a booming new business in recent years for companies like privately held Firebreak Spray Systems of Hood River, Ore.

“As the wildfire threat grows, there will be niche markets for companies who can provide added protection for homeowners,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. “I think some people are saying, ‘If I have the money to do it, why shouldn’t I take matters into my own hands?’ ”

Firebreak Spray Systems attracted a flurry of media coverage during the wildfires in October because the company also provides wealthy homeowners with “concierge-level” fire protection services.

Under a contract with the AIG insurance company, Firebreak Spray Systems dispatched heavy-duty trucks to spray fire retardant around the endangered estates of AIG’s wealthiest clients. The rapid response service has been included since 2005 to homeowners in 150 exclusive ZIP codes who are insured through AIG’s Private Client Group.

“It’s about preventing loss for our policyholders,” said Stan Rivera, director of wildfire protection for AIG’s Private Client Group.

The fire retardant is “very effective and very efficient,” said Firebreak founder Jim Aamodt by telephone from his office in Oregon. The company provides its services throughout the Western United States, but Aamodt said Southern California is emerging as his biggest market.

In San Diego County, Aamodt said his crews visited the homes of 90 AIG clients whose multimillion-dollar homes were threatened by the Witch fire. They sprayed 40, including a few that were just beginning to burn. No sprayed homes were lost, and 15 were saved from immolation, Aamodt said.

His count included a four-bedroom ranch-style home that David and Kerry Roland built on Zumaque Street in Rancho Santa Fe about four years ago.

Kerry Roland said she fully expected to lose their home while they were evacuating before the advancing firestorm. Afterward, she said a Firebreak crew returned to show her that the fire had halted exactly where they had sprayed fire retardant around the property.

Even so, Roland said their house probably survived due to a combination of factors, including the fact that it was built just four years ago and had to meet more stringent fire code requirements.

But such pre-emptive treatment, as Aamodt puts it, accounts for a relatively small portion of Firebreak’s business. He is focused mostly on installing spray systems that range from rooftop sprinklers to big-gun sprayers to protect individual homes, community developments, ranches and farms.

The fire retardant used is called Phos-Chek, the same slurry dropped by helicopters and air tankers, but without the red dye added to help pilots target their drops. The main ingredients of the milky-white retardant are ammonium phosphate and diammonium sulfate, both forms of fertilizer that form a no-burn zone until washed off by a strong rain.

A typical home installation uses compressed gas to force the fire retardant slurry from a holding tank, which ranges from 120 gallons to 315 gallons, through a network of PVC piping much like an irrigation system.

Beyond individual homes, Aamodt said his company has been designing “miles-long” systems capable of spraying fire retardant 100 feet or more around the boundary of housing tracts or community developments. It also sells 25-gallon portable fire retardant sprayers for do-it-yourselfers.

Another entrepreneurial venture was started in San Diego by Dan Hirning following the 2003 Cedar fire, which charred some 273,000 acres. Hirning’s company, Firezat, sells rolls of laminated fire-resistant foil to protect homes from wildfires.

“I was looking for something that everybody can deploy,” Hirning said. “The advantage with our fire wrap is that it’s reusable.”

Hirning wrapped his Escondido home in foil during the October fires, making the ranch-style structure look like a giant baked potato. But the fires did not burn into his neighborhood.

Hirning said he has been supplying foil mostly to the U.S. Forest Service, delivering roughly 400,000 square feet that crews used to wrap historic school houses, lodges and other remote buildings.

Hirning said that so far he has not sold the tarpaulin-sized foil directly to homeowners out of liability concerns. But he anticipates conducting field tests of homes in Malibu and Santa Barbara over the next year.

Another local business, Ambient Control Systems of El Cajon, has developed solar-powered “fire alert” sensors to be deployed as backcountry sentries. Each sensor can monitor roughly 100 acres and is capable of transmitting a warning signal before a small fire explodes into a runaway inferno.

The warning can be transmitted by satellite or via an emergency radio frequency to a customer’s computer or by text message to firefighters’ cell phones, said Glenn Cunningham, a strategic consultant for Ambient Control Systems.

“In as little as four minutes, you can have the fire alert information on an incident commander’s computer screen,” Cunningham said. “That includes where the fire is and its approximate direction.”

The privately held company began developing the sensors in 2002, after selling its irrigation control system technology the previous year, said Jonathan Luck, Ambient’s founding chief executive.

The company, which has six employees, recently completed its first sale of 500 sensors to a fire safe council that oversees the coastal watershed communities of Half Moon Bay and San Mateo.

“What we’re seeing is that it would be better to work with municipal, county and state governments,” Cunningham said.

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