Private firefighters battle to save homes out West

Anthony Cano, a firefighter with Wildland Defense Systems Inc., demonstrates the use of a fire-retardant gel.
Anthony Cano, a firefighter with Wildland Defense Systems Inc., demonstrates the use of a fire-retardant gel. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 06, 2012

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - 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 isn't a public agency. It's 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 most destructive ever to hit the region, authorities and residents say their help is welcome.

"There's curiosity the first time they work with us," he said. "After a while of explaining and making some calls to the right people, they let us right in."

Morris and his nine-man crew helped protect 35 homes in Colorado Springs in the most destructive fire in the state's history. It killed two people and destroyed 346 homes.

There are no numbers available for how many homes these firefighters save and, given the unpredictable nature of fires, few are willing to take credit.

For insurers, hiring their own crew is worth the cost. They spend thousands on well-equipped, federally rated firefighters, potentially saving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to replace a home and its contents.

Insurance companies began sending crews to wildfires around 2006, said Paul Broyles, former head of fire operations at the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates federal firefighting efforts from Boise, Idaho. Land-use changes in the last two decades have allowed more homes to be built in or near wildfire-prone areas, prompting the insurance companies to offer such a service, said Michael Barry of the New York-based industry funded Insurance Information Institute.

"They got a job to do just like we do, and it's a legitimate response by the insurance companies," Broyles said.

Morris' crew worked for Chubb Personal Insurance, which provides coverage for homes typically valued between $400,000 and $3 million, said Kevin Fuhriman, the company's personal lines catastrophe manager.

"It's an added layer of protection for our clients," Fuhriman said. "From a business perspective? It's an extremely advantageous business proposition."

Other companies offer fire protection services, typically for higher-end clients, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

"Just because you don't have this type of policy doesn't mean you don't have fire protection," Walker insisted. "That's what people pay taxes for, and [public] firefighters do a wonderful job protecting homes. I mean, they saved hundreds of homes on this fire."

C.J. Moore, who was digging through the ashes of her home in the Mountain Shadows subdivision, said she would have bought a policy with fire protection if she could afford it. She noted, however, that sometimes having money isn't enough to save your home.

"The fire went through this neighborhood 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 company's 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. "We can't be in there freelancing," Morris said. "Everything we do is coordinated."

|
|
|
|
|