Profits and flames: Private firefighters an option for the wealthy

A wildfire burns near Thousand Oaks, California, in November. (Photo courtesy of Steve Purcell)

BOISE, Idaho – The fire season across the West has been brutal. In California, the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire together left more than 88 dead and 15,000 structures destroyed, with dozens of people still missing. Huge fires in Nevada have burned hundreds of thousands of acres. Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico have all been affected.

Amidst the flames, a trend has emerged – a two-tiered system of private firefighting resources for those who can afford them, and a system stretched thin for those who can’t.

Troy Kurth is the CEO of the private firefighting company Rocky Mountain Fire, near Missoula, Montana. Members of his crew have the same baseline certifications as federal firefighters.

His crew works out of a barn with a sign on the door that says “STALLION Do Not Enter.” Kurth used to run 15 stallions each season before he got into the firefighting business.

“I decided to leave those (signs) up,” he said, after “we converted this horse barn into our fire cache and shop.”

And he says those firefighting services are increasingly in demand. In 2017, the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $2 billion suppressing fires.

Starting in the 1980s, the Forest Service began facing tighter budgets and more destructive fires, so it started contracting with private firefighting companies to help out. More recently, the private insurance industry got involved and started offering private firefighting services on its home policies.

David Torgerson is president of Wildfire Defense Systems in Bozeman, Montana – the largest private firefighting group in the country.

“This contribution from the insurance industry is here to stay,” he said. “It’s become the new norm.”

Torgerson said his company now is bigger than many state firefighting agencies. Like other private companies, Wildfire Defense Systems contracts with state and federal government, but Torgerson also is working with about a dozen private insurers. Since 2008, he said, his crews have responded to more than 550 wildfires that threatened thousands of private properties. In addition, the company helps fire-proof properties before blazes hit homes.

He said most of the homes have been of average value, not mansions worth millions. Either way, he said, the more resources for these raging fires the better.

“Quietly in the background, these insurer programs have been growing and contributing in a strong way and creating better results to the extent possible and contributing to these incidents,” Torgerson said. “It’s really a win-win. It’s a partial solution.”

But how easy is it to get that coverage for the average homeowner? That’s not clear.

Insurance giant AIG describes its Wildfire Protection Unit as a “complimentary service.” However, according to its website, those services are only available to its Private Client Group, which is “custom-designed for high-end properties.”

AIG did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Eric Samansky is with Chubb, another insurance provider that offers this service to all clients in fire-prone areas in 18 states.

“It’s complimentary, so if you are a policyholder within those states, all you need to do is enroll,” he said.

But there may be another problem with any kind of insurance in some areas.

“The affordability issue is one that is growing here in California. We’re continuing to see prices increase,” said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Insurance.

California has more homes in fire-prone areas than any other. And homeowners there are having more and more trouble securing coverage of any kind due to increasing premiums, Kincaid said.

Carl Seielstad has been studying fire trends for decades as an associate professor of fire science and management at the University of Montana; he’s also a fire-incident commander.

This trend toward private firefighting is a reflection of our society, he said.

“I mean that’s capitalism, right?” he asked. “That if you have assets to be protected and you can pay for protection, that you would pay extra for the protection that you get.”

Whether it’s fair and equitable is more complicated. For one, nobody’s keeping track of the industry and who’s using the services. However, “even the perception that fire management plays favorites – whether it’s fair or not – erodes confidence in the fire management enterprise,” Seielstad said.

And he’s not just worried about the insurance industry protecting individual properties. It’s also the private money flowing into state and federal fire suppression.

“When does private enterprise start dictating how fire management gets done?” he asked.

Fire and forest management already is an ecological and political issue, Seielstad said, so what happens when profit comes into play, too?

The private firefighting industry continues to grow. There are more than 150 companies employing more than 12,000 crew members, the industry’s trade group said.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.