Tempers Flare Over Use of Private Firefighters

Tempers Flare Over Use of Private Firefighters

04 October 2010

published by www.aolnews.com

USA —  The flames are gone from the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history, but the debate is still heated.

At issue are private firefighters who enter restricted areas with their own firefighting equipment to help protect the homes of insurance policyholders.

More than 1,000 firefighters and 100 engines responded to the Fourmile Canyon fire in September in the foothills west of Boulder. Among them were 13 firefighters with five fully equipped engines who were contracted by Chubb Insurance Co., and four firefighters with two trucks sent by insurer Chartis Inc.

“If there is cause for concern with guns for hire, are there similar concerns with firehoses for hire?” asked an editorial in the Times Call of Longmont, Colo.

Chubb has operating agreements with Boulder County, other areas of Colorado and 13 other states. It contracts with Montana-based Wildfire Defense Systems, whose firefighters hold “red cards” certifying that they have the training, experience and fitness to fight a wildland fire.Chartis has no formal arrangement with the areas it serves, but sent red card-certified personnel to Boulder County because it has policyholders there, said Dorothy Sarna, a vice president for Chartis’ Private Client Group.

“The companies that weworked with on the Fourmile fire were extremely professional and cooperative,” Deputy Jay Stalnacker, fire management officer for Boulder County, told AOL News.

But tempers have flared online and in newspapers. Cartoonist Sam Wallace targeted the practice in a drawing Friday. “Somehow it does not seem right to me,” he wrote on his website, www.sawtoons.blogspot.com.

The editorial in the Times Call questioned the ethics of a private crew passing one home under immediate threat to go to a customer’s home that might be safe at that moment.

In a burn zone, “We can’t indiscriminately go and do things in other areas,” said David Torgerson, Wildfire Defense Systems’ program manager. If an emergency situation arises “and we are needed in that area, we are going to work with incident command to protect that area,” he said.

Three Chubb policyholders lost their homes while at least 10 remained intact despite being in the burn zone, Chubb spokesman Mark Schussel said. One Chartis customer lost a home among 50 to 60 policyholders in the region, Sarna said.

Chubb has established just-in-case agreements with local agencies in the Western states, South Dakota and Texas. Papers with Boulder were signed two years ago. Chartis offers protection to its elite customers in parts of California and in the pricey ski resorts areas of Colorado, but has no formal agreement with local agencies. It has its own roster of available firefighters.

The newspaper editorial wondered whether firefighters were being drawn by better pay away from public-service jobs.

Torgerson said many of the 100-plus firefighters who contract with his company also work for government agencies because much of their work is seasonal.

“We have been able to respond to the needs of the Chubb program as well as the need of federal agencies,” he said, noting that private work is not necessarily more lucrative than government work.

The insurers advertise their services as fire suppression, not firefighting, and they don’t work in intense fire zones. The crews go to a customer’s home if it’s within a few miles of a fire and clean the gutters, rake leaves, move propane tanks away from the house, close windows and move lawn furniture. If needed, WDS will set up a sprinkler system and spray the home with a fire retardant, Torgerson said. Once the fire has moved through the area, personnel will pull hot embers away from the home so it doesn’t ignite from the heat, and help customers clean up afterward.

Chartis does not spray retardant on homes, but will put foam around the house, Sarna said, noting that firefighters could visit up to 20 homes a day.

Greg Cortopassi, whose home survived the Fourmile fire with severe smoke damage, told the Boulder Daily Camera that he was impressed with Chubb’s protection plan. “I think it’s an incredibly active stance. This is something that I’d like to see the other companies moving forward with,” said Cortopassi, a longtime State Farm customer.

But retired wildland firefighter Bill Gabbert, whose website Wildfire Today monitors the industry, said it might become a problem if too many insurers follow suit.

“I think as long as the private firefighters coordinate with the incident command structure at the fire then they can fill a niche,” Gabbert said. But, “if you take it to the extreme, there are a lot of insurance companies out there. In a heavily populated place like Southern California, you might have 10 insurance companies sending dozens of private engines to a fire. That would be a very difficult situation to control and it would be difficult to coordinate that.”

Boulder County’s Stalnacker also acknowledged that private firefighters put additional strain on public coordinators.

“These are people that are within the fire perimeter and you’re just hoping they’re going to do the right thing,” he said. “At any moment the fire can change and the direction can change. We have in the back of our mind, ‘Are they OK?’ “

More than 15,000 customers have signed up for Chubb’s Wildfire Defense Service, which is free with a fire policy — although Schussel acknowledged that the policies are “definitely not cheap.” In 2009, WDS responded to 30 fires in seven states; 22 homes were gelled with a clear fire-retardant gel.

The values of the homes with Chubb insurance in the Fourmile fire ranged from $300,000 up to several million dollars, Schussel said.

Chartis’ Wildfire Protection Unit is available only on million-dollar homes, but in Boulder its firefighters visited policyholders with lesser levels of insurance, Sarna said.

The Fourmile fire was the most expensive in Colorado history. Started on Sept. 6 by a volunteer firefighter when winds blew up embers from his fire pit, it destroyed nearly 170 homes and caused $217 million in damage. It eventually burned 6,400 acres, including the home of the volunteer firefighter. He will not be charged.

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