Last fall, Vicki Curry and I - along with correspondent Judy Muller - reported on the new phenomenon of ‘firefighters for hire ’ - for a segment we called “Fire, Inc.” These are private companies - generally staffed by a mix of entrepreneurs and retired fire professionals - that sell fire prevention services to individual homeowners, or work through insurance companies like Chubb. If you watched that segment (and it’ll be re-broadcast this week), you’ll know that their primary service involves spreading a fire retardant gel or foam over a client’s house if it’s determined that that home is vulnerable to an oncoming wildfire. Obviously, these private companies want to get in, do their job and get out of the fire zone before the evacuation order is sounded.
I was wondering what role these companies played in the recent wildfire in Santa Barbara County (dubbed the “Jesusita fire”), which burned for six days earlier this month. In a phone call with Jim Wills of Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression (who was featured in our original story) I was told that they sent seven of their trucks out to 20 of their clients’ homes to give them the foam treatment. Six of those homes, he claims, ended up being in the fire’s path and he added, because of the foam, they were spared from damage.
I was also curious about the reactions of the official, government firefighters to these firefighters-for-hire. In reporting the original story, we’d heard anecdotes about private fire trucks blocking the paths of public fire vehicles of private fire company workers causing confusion by being in evacuated areas. In the case of the Jesuit fire, Jim Wills says he heard from some of his team that at a few places they were denied access by the firefighting authorities in charge. However, he added, since all of his clients receive his company’s services through their Chubb insurance policy and since Chubb clients tend to be exclusively high-end, they tend to be a wealthy, politically connected group. So when word got out that Firestorm’s trucks had hit a literal roadblock, phone calls were made, the problem “went away,” and the private fire trucks made it to their destinations.
So far, this is all anecdotal information. When I contacted the Santa Barbara County Fire Dept., they said they heard no reports indicating any particular problems with the private companies.