Private fire brigades are not just for the rich anymore—and for some, they’re also not enough.
“Pray for Calabasas,” Kim Kardashian urged her legion of Instagram followers in a video she shot while flying over the Woolsey Fire on November 8, 2018. But Kardashian did not leave the fate of her home, allegedly worth $60 million, up to mere prayers. Instead, as first reported by TMZ and later confirmed by Kardashian during an appearance on Ellen, she and her husband, Kanye West, hired private firefighters.
“We were fortunate enough and blessed enough. And I know that not everyone has this luxury available to them, but we were able to get private firefighters,” Kardashian explained, after Ellen DeGeneres expressed wonder that her house had survived despite its proximity to the fire, which scorched approximately 96,949 acres, killed three people, and destroyed or damaged 1,841 buildings in areas including Malibu and the San Fernando Valley. “[It was through] a company that you can hire, that friends of mine that lost their home in a Santa Barbara fire [recommended]…. They saved our home—and saved our neighborhood.”
The revelation ignited a fervent debate. A TMZ article claimed multiple neighbors were grateful that Kardashian’s private team had protected their homes as well. In the Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal pointed to the existence of private fire brigades as proof of America’s alarming stratification. It’s one thing, one could argue, for the wealthy to receive better treatment at the airport, speeding from posh lounges to the tarmac in luxury cars as the plebeians pad shoeless through TSA scanners. But in emergencies, isn’t everyone supposed to receive equal treatment?
Due in part to heavy rains in late spring and early summer, wildfires across the country have been less destructive this year than in 2018, when blazes tore through 8,767,492 acres and the California Camp Fire killed 86 people—more than any other fire in the state’s history. But above-average temperatures in August are making for a dry fall, and fires in both Northern and Southern California earlier this month have meteorologists predicting a fire season that could extend into December. These trends are worrisome. In western states, the average fire season has increased by 84 days since the 1970s, and the fires seem to be growing in size. California estimates that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise between now and 2100, the average area burned statewide will increase by a stunning 77%.
Meanwhile, fire departments across the country are struggling to recruit volunteers, who account for 70% of American fire forces. Managing wildfires is growing more expensive too. In 2017, fire suppression cost the U.S. Forest Service more than $2.4 billion—about one and a half times what Congress had appropriated for such purposes.
With public resources stretched thin and fires worsening, the use of private firefighting seems poised not just to persist, but to spread.
The majority of private wildfire-response companies are not concierge services that respond to homes on demand. Instead they contract with insurance companies, which figure that paying to save customers’ homes from fire will cost less than rebuilding those homes from ash.
This idea traces back to the late 1690s, following the Great Fire of London, when the Hand in Hand Fire & Life Insurance Society established its own firefighting force to douse flames in buildings it insured. Property owners would affix “fire marks,” leaden plaques displaying two clasped hands, to their exterior walls to identify themselves as Hand in Hand customers.
Meanwhile, fires in the American colonies were often fought by clutches of volunteers. Insurers sometimes offered incentives to these volunteer groups, like in the Philadelphia area, where Philadelphia magazine reports that at least one 18th-century insurance company gave money to the first firefighters to arrive at fires threatening their insured buildings. But it wasn’t until more recently that the trend of American insurers offering fire-response services began to take off.
In 2005, following a period of wildfires in California that torched over $1 billion in property, AIG introduced a Wildfire Protection Unit to conduct assessments, treat at-risk homes with fire retardant, and dispatch “Rapid Response” trucks during wildfires. At first the program was limited to members of the insurer’s Private Client Group—which also helps customers insure fine art, wine collections, and yachts—in 14 of California’s wealthiest zip codes, including Brentwood, Malibu, and Bel Air.
Though it has yet to shake its associations with the 1 percent, over time wildfire-mitigation services have become more accessible. AIG has expanded its program to hundreds of zip codes—including places like San Bernardino and San Antonio, where yacht ownership is less common than in Beverly Hills.
Companies like Chubb, Pure, Travelers, and USAA, which provides insurance to honorably discharged members of the military and their families, have also begun offering wildfire mitigation services—often for free. “We automatically enroll any member who lives in 15 states,” says Sean Burgess, a senior vice president at USAA. “The value of the home is not a criteria.” Chubb’s customers have the option to enroll in 19 states. Travelers rolled out wildfire-response services to all of its California policyholders in June.
Kris Brandini, the jovial owner of Firebreak Protection Systems, a small wildfire systems and response company headquartered in Simi Valley, says the insurer he works with has dispatched him to mobile homes as well as fancier abodes. David Torgerson, the CEO of Wildfire Defense Systems (WDS), a larger wildfire-response company, says the same. “More than 90% of the homes we serve are not high-net-worth homes; they’re Main Street America homes.”
According to Torgerson, WDS handles the majority of the private fire industry’s insurance business; the company has teamed up with Chubb, Travelers and USAA, among others. Inside the company’s tidy brick headquarters in Bozeman, Montana, employees seated before double monitors scrutinize wildfire maps on proprietary software. Using the maps, which are punctuated by dots representing properties insured by WDS partners, the company decides when and where to deploy.
Upon arriving at a fire, the WDS team checks in with the incident commander, usually a state or local fire chief, to request access to the properties it aims to protect. Those appeals, most of which involve entering evacuation zones, are almost always approved, Torgerson says. From there the team decides where to direct their wildland engines: white Ford F-550 pickups outfitted with hoses, water tanks, and other fire suppression tools.
Torgerson stresses that WDS’s priorities are driven by risk, not home value. “The fires determine which homes we work on. If it’s threatened, then that’s what we [respond to].” When they arrive at a property, a WDS team rushes to remove brush and other flammable materials from nearby, install temporary sprinklers, or spray fire-blocking gel on the building.
Over the past 11 years that WDS has worked with insurers, Torgerson reports that the company has responded to over 600 fires, saving his clients roughly $750 million. He reflects: “You just have to pick the insurer that has this offering—there’s more than a dozen out there…. It’s a win-win.”
But Char Miller, the W.M. Keck professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College, remains troubled by private fire response. “Why are we not underwriting firefighting protection where all people receive the same kind of support?” he wonders. “I think it sets up a political problem, but it’s more ethical than anything. Somehow we failed to help underwrite a system that protects everybody equally.”
Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the state’s fire agency, has more concrete concerns. While he says the private crews he interacts with are generally respectful of Cal Fire’s authority, they still add pressure on his team. “[It means that] you have individuals in the fire area that we need to protect in case the fire heads in that direction.”
There’s also a risk of buccaneering freelancers. According to reporting by BuzzFeed, Kardashian and West’s private crew did not check in with incident commanders before crossing behind evacuation lines. To curb such behavior, last fall California’s legislature passed AB 2380, which holds that private companies must receive permission to enter evacuated areas, notify incident command of their presence, and carry GPS devices so incident command can track their whereabouts—among other requirements. Though he says the new rules won’t impact his operations, Torgerson applauded their formalization, noting: “We really look forward to AB 2380 and the rules that get developed with it, because it will define how this all works, make it more effective…and create an opportunity for our mission and value to be realized on fires with less delay.”
Anxious that neither government agencies nor private response teams will be able to save their properties, some homeowners in fire-prone areas are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. In California, which holds the dubious distinction of having the highest number of properties in the western U.S. and Canada at high or extreme risk of wildfire, this seems particularly true.
In March, the Wall Street Journal reported the story of Phillip Vogt, who waited out the Woolsey Fire in his Malibu home that he had fortified with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of rooftop ember guards, heat-resistant windows, and other precautionary features. Nearby in multiple tanks, he had stockpiled 50,000 gallons of water that he could spray out with a 1,000-foot hose. Photos of the home after the fire died down depict a pristine white Spanish-style home surrounded by acres of charred chaparral.
In anticipation of the next big fire, one Malibu resident, who asked to go by the pseudonym Jonathan Dean to avoid jeopardizing his construction permits as he rebuilds his house, vows to go even further.
Standing on the singed stone patio next to where his living room used to be, Dean gazes out at the Pacific Ocean and recalls the morning of November 9, 2018. As he and his wife gathered family photo albums and drove downhill to the Pacific Coast Highway to be out of the way of firefighters, they felt optimistic about the fate of their home, a Spanish-style four-bedroom perched partway up a brushy hill.
Twenty-eight years earlier, the Deans had personally built the house with wildfires in mind. The walls were thick stucco, which is considered one of the most fire-resistant building materials, and the roof was constructed of heavy red terra-cotta. After watching the robust response to a small transformer fire the year before—“they sent 100 guys and 10 engines!”—the couple trusted its local fire department. Plus, as USAA customers, they were entitled to private fire-response services.
After crawling through hours of traffic as all of Malibu tried to evacuate during the 2018 fire, Dean received a text from a neighbor four houses down. It said: “My house burned, your neighbor’s house burned, your house is totally intact. You made it.”
By the next morning, however, their house was gone. The Deans would later learn that the Wildfire Defense Systems crew dispatched by USAA had been denied entry to the area where they lived. While they don’t blame the insurer or fire-response company for following orders, the Deans also don’t plan to rely on them when the next wildfire strikes.
Instead, Dean has another plan for the new home he’s building on the same site. “I will now buy pumps. I’m planning on having an underground bunker and a generator and fire hoses. Next time, I’m staying.”