USA — Bill Ward was traveling in Italy when he got the text: A massive wildfire was raging west of his Bellvue ranch, and three days later firefighters were on their way to his property.
When the 2012 High Park Fire displaced hundreds of Larimer County homeowners for weeks, few had the luxury of knowing the immediate fate of their homes, or even if crews had made it to their backyard. But Ward knew that a fire crew would be on his 900-acre property because he had, in a way, paid for it to be there.
Hired by Wards insurance company, firefighters from Montana headed straight for the ranch and sent Ward photos as the fire burned around it.
My understanding is they set up a kind of barrier behind the home, and that they used some sprinkler systems that they had, that would keep things wet, Ward said. Probably saved the house, I am going to guess.
With megafires like the High Park on the rise, Ward is one of many property owners in the West who are opting for an extra layer of protection during a wildfire a private fire crew, in this case hired by Wards insurance company, Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. The program makes total economic sense, Ward said, since saving a home from wildfire saves an insurance company more money in the long run.
Paying for private fire protection is an increasingly popular option in Colorado, where three massive wildfires have destroyed hundreds of homes since 2012, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
Over the past several years, we have seen them activate these forces, Walker said of insurance companies. Walker cant count the number of companies that contract with fire crews, but she knows their ranks are on the rise.
They hire professional firefighters. They will go in and defend homes, and develop a fire break, Walker said.
Despite their work, for-hire fire crews might have a stigma to battle in the firefighting world, said Timothy Ingalsbee, head of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. Private fire crews often have a reputation of being reckless and less-qualified than public crews working for the U.S. Forest Service or a county, according to Ingalsbee.
While Chubb said its firefighters are fully certified to do the job, Ingalsbee believes the growing prevalence of insurance-funded crews goes along with a culture shift that favors the wealthy.
I am concerned that this is part of a trend of wealthy providing their own protection, while less affluent homeowners have to rely on public agencies to protect their homes. If anything, wildfire is a great leveler of class.
Specific protection for private properties also goes against what Ingalsbee thinks is better fire management. In neighborhoods where burning homes light other homes on fire, its not about protecting one, but all, he said.
It really isnt about private property protection, weve really got to start thinking about community protection, he said.
Nonetheless, when it comes to the work of fighting wildfires, most hired crews are no different than federal, county or city firefighters, and they do come with a few bonuses, said Tom Kammerer, a sales and marketing director for Chubb in the Rocky Mountain Region. Depending on the fire conditions, the hired crew is guaranteed to make it to the insured home.
While most displaced homeowners can only watch television during a wildfire, hoping to get glimpses of their homes still standing, Chubb customers often receive regular updates from crews as they work around their property. Ward, for instance, talked on the phone to the fire crew hired to protect his property, a rare opportunity during a massive wildfire that typically draws crews from across the country.
Kammerer sees this as the greatest similarity among some of the big Front Range fires, namely the lack of info thats specific to individuals and their homes, he said. After the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires in 2012, the number of homeowners who registered for Chubbs wildfire defense service spiked, he said.
Chubbs program started in 2008 as a complimentary service for policyholders in 14 Western states. The company contracts with Wildfire Defense Systems, a Montana company with firefighters and engines for hire. Premiums vary from homeowner to homeowner, but Chubb typically insures higher-value properties, said spokesman David Hilgren.
In June 2012, as the High Park Fire was raging, the companys crews spent days on Wards land, where they set up a portable water pond and sprinkler system. They extinguished flames in the forest around Wards home. Firefighters also hacked away fences and gates so Wards 127 head of cattle could escape the flames.
By the time Ward, who lives with his family in another home in Fort Collins, was able to get back to the ranch June 28, the main house and his caretakers house were still standing. Flames had stopped roughly 75 yards from both.
In 2013, Wildfire Defense Systems started working with USAA and has since defended 500 homes insured by the company during 19 fires across the West, said Rebecca Hirsch, a spokeswoman with USAA. As with Chubb, the program is free to enrolled homeowners and also offers fire mitigation consultations with fire crew members, said Hirsch.
While insurance contracts of wildland firefighters are staring to surge, private firefighters have long been used to bolster federal firefighting forces. The U.S. Forest Service contracts 41 crews for initial attack the first few hours of a wildfire, when crews are trying to get it under control, said Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center. Contracted crews have been a regular part of the firefighting effort since the early 1980s.
Wildfire Defense Systems is one of 200 private firefighting companies that have contracts with federal agencies, said company President David Torgerson. The company only works for insurance companies and does not do contract work on an individual basis, said Torgerson.
Torgersons crews have the same certifications as all wildland firefighters and work in tandem with whichever team is managing the firefighting effort, he said. The company has a range of resources when firefighters and an engine arrive at a home, they come prepared to set up a sprinkler system, clear debris away from the home or spray buildings with fire-resistent gel.
Like other firefighters, they ideally reach a property before the fire blows through and prepare it to withstand flames by clearing away debris. Once the fire passes through an area, the crew will come back in and continue working around the home.
Its an insurance perk that has saved at least a few homes in Colorado. It can also help already taxed local fire crews when it comes to protecting homes in their district, said Ward.
When I talked to the guys on the volunteer fire department, (they said) having those kind of crews is a big relief, Ward said. Its just more manpower for them.