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FEATURE-'Cadillac insurance'? Hunt for private firefighters as California burns

SANTA CRUZ, Calif., Aug 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - O ver the past week, Jess Wills has been fielding calls from wealthy northern California residents seeking to hire his team of private firefighters to protect their property from the hundreds of wildfires engulfing the state.

Since mid-August, northern California has been hit with more than 14,000 lightning strikes, sparking fires that have so far destroyed at least 1,700 homes and other structures.

The coronavirus pandemic has sidelined some of the roughly 2,000 prison inmates who form the backbone of California’s wildfire protection force, with inmates released or forced to quarantine, according to a department spokeswoman.

Firefighting officials say they have been forced to triage their work, leaving some structures to burn. Meanwhile, private firefighters have been stepping into the gap - for those who can afford it.

“It’s a certain demographic of owners who have the capital to hire us,” said Wills, who runs Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression Inc.

He has sent four engine crews to defend private property in the last week - and is now having to turn away new clients.

“Wealthy people already have their private schools, and they have their private jets. Now, someone with money says OK I am going to hire my own private fire department,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

Wildfires around the world are surging in number, size, strength and destruction, driven partly by global warming, while ever more people and their homes lie in the path of danger, research says.

California governor Gavin Newsom has blamed climate change for the 1.4 million acres of the state burned so far in 2020, 25 times more than this time last year.

But some worry about the emergence of a two-tiered system of disaster response, where the wealthy can purchase special access to emergency services.

“More and more, those who have the capital to secure private support during a disaster do so,” said Char Miller, a professor of environmental history at Pomona College in southern California.

“I understand why one might do this. But what bothers me is the inequities - what kinds of people will get help - when public resources are stretched thin.”

Income and wealth inequality is particularly acute in the state, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, with 20% of all net worth concentrated in the 30 wealthiest zip codes, home to just 2% of Californians.

PRIVATE FIREFIGHTERS

Today’s private firefighters resemble the fire brigades of the 18th and 19th centuries who worked for insurance firms, said Timothy Ingalsbee, founder of the group Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology.

“They would go and protect only those houses that paid them,” he said. “It’s started to happen again.”

A significant amount of wildfire-fighting work has been privatized over the last two decades, according to Deborah Miley, president of the National Wildfire Suppression Association, a group for private firefighters.

Private firms currently account for “40% of all wildfire suppression resources available on the ground nationally,” she said.

Most contractors, including Firestorm, get the bulk of their work through government contracts and work in tandem with public firefighters, Miley added.

But California has seen an uptick in demand for private fire crews to protect private property during recent wildifire seasons, industry groups told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We live in a capitalist society,” said Ryan Bella, the owner of firefighting firm Bella Wildfire & Forestry, in Weimar, California. “Anyone who wants to pay to protect their property should be able to.”

Clients can hire his firm to protect their property for $300 to $5,000 per hour, depending on the size of the job.

“There are a lot more private crews like mine out there — every year more and more,” he said. Dina Hoffman, whose property in the Santa Cruz mountains was nearly destroyed by fires this week, is wary of the trend.

“We are underfunding our public services,” she said, adding that her family, friends, and neighbors defended their homes by defying evacuation orders and digging their own firebreaks.

“People who don’t have a $10 million house should still have the same chance to not lose their house,” Hoffman said.

Lynette Round, a spokeswoman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said “it was unprecedented that we had that many lightning strikes starting so many fires at once”.

“In these situations, you have to direct the resources you have to the places where they will save lives,” she said by phone, noting that the state had already assigned more than 800 seasonal fire fighters to bolster its efforts this summmer.

‘CADILLAC FIRE INSURANCE’

Ingalsbee said he is alarmed by the rise of “Cadillac” insurance plans for wealthy people which include bespoke fire emergency response.

“It’s for wealthy homes - the insurance company doesn’t want to pay for loss - so it’s cheaper for them to hire a crew and an engine,” he explained. “But they don’t defend the whole neighborhood or city block, that’s not their mission.”

Major insurance providers offer firefighting services in plans marketed to high net worth individuals.

The wildfire protection unit of insurer American International Group Inc, for example, dispatches a crew to insured homes within three miles of an active fire, to spray fire retardant.

PURE Insurance, which markets itself for “high net worth families”, also offers a wildfire mitigation program.

“(We) monitor active wildfires and provide emergency response services,” the company says on its website. “If a wildfire’s projected path threatens your home, our partners may be dispatched.”

Neither insurance firm responded to requests for comment.

HAVES AND HAVE NOTS

Theresa Gerigk, director of private client services at insurance broker Risk Strategies, says she has been fielding an influx of requests from wealthy California homeowners who want individualized wildfire protection.

“With public resources spread so thin, people want to use their own resources,” she said.

But Miller of Pomona College worries that if wealthy people are able to find a way to shield themselves from the consequences of wildfires, it could hamper the public response to underlying problems such as climate change or poor forest management.

“Those who will be able to afford to defend themselves will,” he said. “And the underlying inequities won’t be addressed.”

Ingalsbee is concerned about a future where access to firefighting resources is increasingly determined by income, or insurance policies.

“It comes at the expenses of the public sphere,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s good for our communities.”

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