LOS ANGELES – Among the army of firefighters protecting neighborhoods at the front lines of Southern California's monstrous wildfire are small teams hired by insurance companies to provide personalized prevention and protection for homeowners.
Firms including American International, Pure Insurance and Chubb Limited have provided the service for policies for homeowners in wildfire-prone states for about a decade. Chubb contracts with licensed wildfire defense teams across 13 states, with the majority in California, where the fire season lasts all year and huge blazes destroyed thousands of homes in the fall.
The trucks these private firefighters drive to policyholders' properties are indistinguishable from those used by public fire agencies and they carry much of the same equipment, including water tanks, hoses and flame retarding gels.
Chubb has dispatched 11 trucks carrying two firefighters each to about 500 homes in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties northwest of Los Angeles where the Thomas fire has destroyed more than 1,000 buildings since Dec. 4. It's a welcome service for customers and smart business for an insurance company since saving a home is cheaper than paying out on a policy to rebuild it.
In one case, the teams visited a single home in the fire zone five times over two weeks, according to Kevin Fuhriman, Chubb's "catastrophe manager" who oversees the company's California fire response. Team members removed dry brush, patio furniture and anything else around the exterior that could catch fire if embers blew through. They also cleared the gutters and taped up vents.
During subsequent visits, as flames drew closer, sprinklers were installed to keep the ground moist and the property was treated with a hydrating gel. Fuhriman said at one point the private firefighters arrived to find fire on the property and quickly put it out.
The company provides regular updates to evacuated policyholders, who frequently stay in shelters or hotels miles (kilometers) away, anxiously awaiting word about the condition of their properties.
Seth Hatfield said he "started to read the fine print" of his homeowner's policy several years ago and selected the wildfire defense option when he moved his family into a new house in Santa Barbara. At his previous nearby home, a 2008 blaze burned down the garage and devastated the neighborhood.
The option was included with his policy and did not add any cost to his annual premium, which Hatfield estimated at $3,500. Policyholders do not pay extra but have to opt in to the service because they are required to grant permission for access to their properties.
After the Thomas fire erupted and approached Santa Barbara, the insurance team arrived to check that preventive measures were in place for Hatfield's property in the Mission Canyon area, where home prices commonly top $2 million.
"They gave me a couple of pointers of things that hadn't occurred to me," like removing doormats, taping vents and cleaning gutters, he said.
His family evacuated but returned to find the home still standing.
As potentially dangerous gusts whipped up again Thursday and threatened to blow embers back into neighborhoods, Chubb crews were keeping an eye on the shifting conditions and staging near the wealthy hillside community of Montecito, Fuhriman said.
There were 75 private firefighters on 41 engines assigned to the Thomas fire on Thursday, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
Firefighting contracting is not a new phenomenon within the insurance industry. Insurance firms in the United States had relationships with private firefighters dating back to the 1790s before public fire departments became common, according to Fran O'Brien, a Chubb division president.
Today's contracted firefighters work at the discretion of government fire incident commanders, said Scott McLean, the deputy chief of the state forestry and fire protection department.
He said it is a relatively new process that's still finding its way in California. The private crews attend briefings with state firefighters and must provide documentation and details about where in the fire zone they're going. They must also heed all evacuation orders.
"They can't just come and go. We need to know where they are," McLean said.