USA –-When firefighter Eric Morris shows up at wildfires across the West, locals battling the flames sometimes look at him and wonder who sent him.
The answer isnt a public agency. Its an insurance company.
Morris is among a group of private firefighters hired in recent years to protect homes with high-end insurance policies.
In a wildfire season that is one of the busiest and most destructive ever to hit the region, authorities and residents say their help is welcome.
Theres curiosity the first time they work with us, Morris said. After a while of explaining and making some calls to the right people, they let us right in.
Morris and his nine-man Wildland Defense System crew successfully helped protect 35 homes in Colorado Springs in the most destructive fire in the states history.
The fire killed two people and destroyed 346 homes.
Morris’ team deployed from Ruidoso, N.M., to Colorado Springs hours after the fire erupted June 23.
The team is under contract with Chubb Personal Insurance, which provides coverage for homes typically valued between $400,000 and $3 million, said Chubb executive Kevin Fuhriman.
Its an added layer of protection for our clients, Fuhriman said. From a business perspective? Its an extremely advantageous business proposition.
Morris arrived at the fire with three brush trucks, each capable of carrying 450 gallons of water, and a tanker truck that carries 1,200 gallons.
The team’s main focus was protecting homes by reducing the number places a fire can take hold.
The team moved flammable materials patio furniture, shrubs, even pine needles collected in gutters away from Chubb-insured homes.
The crews closed doors and windows left open by fleeing homeowners. They also used inflatable water tanks to feed sprinkler systems to wet down the house and surrounding area.
The crews also carried 5-gallon tubs of a fire retardant gel that, when mixed with water, can coat a house with a thin wet layer to keep flying embers from igniting the house.
Such firefighting crews focus their efforts on insured homes that are facing the greatest threat from the wildfire without regard for any individual homes value, Fuhriman said.
Insurance companies began sending crews to wildfires around 2006, said Paul Broyles, former head of fire operations at the National Interagency Fire Center.
Several companies offer fire protection services, typically for higher-end clients, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
C.J. Moore, who was digging through the ashes of her home in the hard hit Mountain Shadows neighborhood, said she would have bought a policy with fire protection if she could afford it.
However, she noted, sometimes having money isnt enough to save your home.
The fire went through this neighborhood (Mountain Shadows) so fast there was no hope for these houses, she said. The fire burned so hot that the driveways look like they were hit by a jackhammer.
Morris works for Wildland Defense Systems of Red Lodge, Mont. It has worked alongside the federal firefighting system for years, responding to more than 80 wildfires since 2008, said the companys president, David Torgerson.
Wildland has 50 engines and about 100 firefighters strategically located in 11 Western states, the Dakotas and Texas.
The private crews work closely with and report to incident commanders at the scene. Their presence means other firefighters can focus on other structures, said Greg Huele, a spokesman with the federal team in charge of the Colorado Springs fire.
We cant be in there freelancing, Morris said. Everything we do is coordinated.
Morris and his crew deployed from near Ruidoso, N.M., to Colorado Springs hours after the fire erupted June 23.
Morris showed up at the fire with three so-called brush trucks, each capable of carrying 450 gallons of water, and a tanker truck that carries 1,200 gallons. Their main focus was protecting homes by reducing the number places a fire can take hold.
They close doors and windows left open by fleeing evacuees. They move flammable materials away from Chubb-insured homes patio furniture, shrubs, even pine needles collected in gutters that can ignite. They also use inflatable water tanks to feed sprinkler systems to wet down the house and surrounding area.
The crews also carry 5-gallon tubs of a fire retardant gel that when mixed with water can coat a house with a thin wet layer to keep flying embers from igniting the house.
Its a last ditch effort to protect homes that Morris crew had to employ three times before they evacuated the Cedar Heights neighborhood for their safety.
The crews focus their efforts on insured homes that are facing the greatest threat from the wildfire without regard for the homes value, Fuhriman said.
Chubb, Wildland or Morris would not take credit for all of Chubbs insured homes surviving the blaze. They point instead to the effort of more than 1,500 firefighters.
In some instances, only one or two home survived on a street while the rest burned to the foundation. That can be attributed to the random nature of fire, which left some homes in a smoldering heap while sparing trees and shrubs, even mail inside a mailbox.
In other instances, homes survived because its where public firefighters were able to safely defend the home, Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown said.
Having your home burn to the ground is devastating, said Bill Simmons, whose home survived and who does not have an insurance policy offering individual home protection. I hope everybody would appreciate any help that you have.