USA — Residents in Piedmont can have a private fire protection company try to save their homes from a wildfire, a luxury not offered to residents living blocks away in a less affluent ZIP code in Oakland.
In Ukiah, Mendocino Redwood Co. hired more than 100 firefighters from an Oregon firm and rented a water-dumping helicopter to battle 31 wildfires that threatened its 229,000 acres of timber in June while state fire crews were engaged elsewhere.
Across California, many of the bulldozers used to cut firebreaks are from private contractors, as are some of the aircraft used to drop retardant. Hundreds of private firefighters work alongside counterparts from government agencies, cutting fire breaks, setting backfires and mopping up.
Increasingly, the job of fighting fires and protecting homes is being done not by the government, but by private companies.
“We call it the fire industrial complex,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter and now executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, a nonprofit in Eugene, Ore., dedicated to environmentally sound fire management. “It’s big business, and business is booming.”
Critics say contracting out traditionally public functions – a practice that in the Iraq war has led to privately organized security details and troop support services – shifts accountability, can be more expensive and erodes people’s confidence in government.
“What’s worrying about private firefighters is that there are growing portions of the economy that are banking on, gambling on, that there are going to be more and more natural disasters,” said Naomi Klein, author of the book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” “People are going to forget the point that’s actually involved here – solving the problems like Category 5 hurricanes and wildfires.”
Big help for government
Backers counter that private contractors beef up state resources and are invaluable during an emergency – such as the 2,093 wildfires that have ravaged California since June 20 – without requiring the government to keep more full-time firefighters and equipment at taxpayers’ expense.
“There’s a value to that,” said Deborah Miley, executive director of a private firefighting industry group, the National Wildfire Suppression Association. “We accept the risk. We accept the liability for the equipment. We take on the costs of the training.”
The U.S. Forest Service spent $127 million on private contractors to fight California wildfires in fiscal 2007, said John Heil, a spokesman who described contractors as “a valuable part of the team.” Private companies were used to provide everything from aircraft to water trucks to catering and portable hand-washing stations at base camps.
Miley’s group represents companies that employ more than 10,000 firefighters. She estimates that 40 percent of the personnel and equipment used to put out wildfires across the country comes from private contractors.
In 2005, the insurance company AIG began offering wildfire protection services free to some customers who pay $10,000 in annual premiums or have homes valued at more than $1 million. Enrollment in the program more than doubled in the past year to 3,200 homes, AIG spokesman Peter Tulupman said.
Two other insurers, Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. and the Chubb Group, have started similar services.
“Wealthy people like to live in very attractive areas, and these beautiful areas are prone to natural catastrophes,” Tulupman said.
AIG offers the fire protection service in 200 upscale ZIP codes in Colorado and California, including Atherton, Woodside and the Berkeley hills. It covers the 94611 ZIP code for Piedmont, but not the adjacent 94602 ZIP code.
“We cater to a very small, exclusive clientele,” Tulupman said. “We’re not a mass-market insurer.”
AIG Private Client Group contracts with an outfit to send crews to clients’ homes at the beginning of the fire season to spray perimeter vegetation with a fire retardant. If a fire approaches, a crew is dispatched to apply retardant to the house and landscaping, but it does not remain to battle the blaze, Tulupman said.
“It’s not a private firefighting service by any means,” he said. “If a house is on fire, we’re not going to put it out. It’s a preventative measure.”
Some fire officials worry, though, that those private crews will get in firefighters’ way or be cut off in a swift-moving blaze and need rescuing.
“Communication is a huge issue for us,” said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “If you’re not communicating with the division on either side of you and the other resources on the fire, that could pose a very serious threat.”
That’s not a problem for the AIG contract crews, who check in with the incident commander before entering a fire zone, said Sam DiGiovanna, a retired Monrovia (Los Angeles County) fire chief who oversees them.
“If it’s too dangerous, we’ll abide by the incident commander’s rules,” DiGiovanna said. “I’ve heard of some loose-cannon-type companies that just barrel through. We don’t do that.”
Others are concerned about the contract fire crews’ training and cost.
“Part of the growth is the conservative ideology that says private industry can do better than public agencies. That’s purely ideology,” said Ingalsbee, the director of the fire management nonprofit. “It was sold to the taxpayers that this would be cheaper and efficient, that you only use the crews when they’re needed. But some of them come at pretty exorbitant rates.”
Problems in ’02
He pointed to an April 2004 federal report on the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon and Northern California, which burned 500,000 acres and cost more than $150 million to extinguish. The report said, “Poorly trained and inexperienced contracted crews presented significant operational concerns.”
Some crew and squad bosses could not communicate in English with government supervisors, and managers had to change firefighting tactics because it was unsafe to use some of the contract crews for aggressive operations, said the report by the agency now called the Government Accountability Office.
The industry has since improved training, including an English-language evaluation for crew bosses, Miley said.
Mike Jani, president of Mendocino Redwood Co., had only praise for contract crews he hired to defend the company’s stands of redwoods and Douglas fir after lightning strikes in late June started hundreds of blazes statewide and taxed state firefighting resources.
“Fantastic group. I mean really, really good,” Jani said. “This was a fire experience unlike California had ever faced before, and it necessitated us calling them. We would always prefer to go through Cal Fire.”
Tony Leonardini, a St. Helena firefighter, praised a contract crew from Washington he encountered while fighting the Sugarloaf Fire west of Boonville, part of the Mendocino Lightning Complex of fires that broke out June 20 and burned 53,300 acres.
“They were good,” Leonardini said. “Obviously they were trained. They had great equipment.”
Josiah Campbell, a 24-year-old hand crew boss for Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression in Chico, has fought wildfires from California to Florida for the company since he finished high school. In a fire-resistant shirt and cargo pants, both layered with ash and dirt on his 26th day on a fire line in Shasta County, Campbell looked indistinguishable from a government firefighter.
“The big difference is the paperwork. Usually we have less,” Campbell said. “We’re all out there doing the same job, the same piece of line.”
But insulating the wealthy from reliance on public fire protection could undercut the system as a whole, similar to disputes over funding public education and health care, Klein said.
“When (wealthy) people opt out of the public system and opt for private schools and private health care, they lose interest in maintaining the integrity of the public system,” the author said, “and it starts to erode.”
Jim Wills, founder of Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression, which contracts crews with the U.S. Forest Service and is Chubb’s local contractor for home protection, said those fears are unfounded.
“We hope to be part of the solution,” Wills said. “We’re not the enemy. We’re here to help.”
In Bay Area section
Fire explodes in size: A blaze burning about 30 miles west of Yosemite Valley jumped from 1,000 to 16,000 acres. B3
By the numbers
Forest Service fiscal-year costs for contractors fighting California wildfires:
— 2007: $127 million
— So far in 2008: $75 million
Cal Fire estimates for payments to contractors and local fire agencies:
— 2007: $137 million
— 2008: $261 million
Sources: U.S. Forest Service, state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection