Pay a premium, get a private firefighter
Bryce Carrier's cellphone rang at 3 a.m.: Help! The fire is almost to my house. Carrier hopped into his heavy-duty red Ford F-550 truck...
Los Angeles Times
RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — Bryce Carrier's cellphone rang at 3 a.m.: Help! The fire is almost to my house.
Carrier hopped into his heavy-duty red Ford F-550 truck and sped to northeast Poway, dodging fallen eucalyptus and heading straight toward the wind-whipped blaze. He arrived to find flames marching up an embankment toward the multimillion-dollar home.
Yanking out the hose in the back of his truck, he began dousing fire retardant along the perimeter of the property, the shrubs and the roof. When the flames hit the milky white liquid, they stopped.
Another home saved.
Carrier is a certified firefighter, but he doesn't work for any government agency. He's an employee of Firebreak Spray Systems, which partners with the insurance company American International Group (AIG) to protect the mansions of the moneyed.
AIG's Wildfire Protection Unit, part of its Private Client Group, is offered only to homeowners in California's most affluent ZIP codes — including Malibu, Beverly Hills, Newport Beach and Menlo Park — and a dozen Colorado resort communities. It covers about 2,000 policyholders, who pay premiums of at least $10,000 a year and own homes with a value of at least $1 million.
Carrier and his 15 crewmates sprayed retardant on and around more than 160 homes in Malibu, Lake Arrowhead and the hardest-hit areas of Orange and San Diego counties last week. They claim to have saved a dozen homes.
Jim Moore, of Malibu, for one, was grateful for their services.
"Just picture it," said Moore, whose house was sprayed by Firebreak early last week. "Here you are in that raging wildfire. Smoke everywhere. Flames everywhere. Plumes of smoke coming up over the hills. Here's a couple guys showing up in what looks like a firetruck who are experts trained in fighting wildfire and they're there specifically to protect your home. ... It was really, really comforting."
For the insurance company, it's also savvy business. One saved home covers the cost of the program.
"We are saving homes that may average $3 million to $5 million each," said Firebreak CEO Jim Aamodt. "Those are the hard dollars, money the insurance company is not paying out."
AIG says they are not a replacement for public fire departments; after all, the insurer did lose some houses. But like an air bag in a car crash, the company says, it's better than nothing.
Yet others say that it's just another way for the wealthy to buy their way around cash-strapped, undermanned public services. Firefighters across the region complained last week that they simply did not have enough trucks, helicopters and airplanes to combat the fires.
"What we have is a dangerous confluence of events: underfunded states, increasingly inefficient disaster response, a loss of faith in the public sphere ... and a growing part of the economy that sees disaster as a promising new market," said author Naomi Klein, whose new book, "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism," looks at, among other things, the response to Hurricane Katrina.
Klein said AIG offers a glimpse into the future of what she calls "disaster apartheid" in which the affluent are better equipped for emergencies.
"You can't fault businesses for seeing an opportunity, and you can't fault individuals for wanting to protect their property. Pretty much anyone who could afford it would want it," she added. "But survival shouldn't be a luxury item."
AIG said it did apply fire retardant to some homes of standard policyholders if they happened to be nearby, because it made financial sense. While AIG is the only insurance company to provide emergency fire-response teams, other fire-prevention businesses cater to the elite.
As blazes raged in Malibu last week, camera crews captured a groundskeeper at movie producer Jeffrey Katzenberg's mansion coating the home with foam using a system he installed several years ago.
Firebreak sells similar retardant systems apart from its work with AIG and says sales have already tripled over last year. Installation costs about $10,000 for a device that can be activated remotely or deployed automatically when sensors detect fire approaching.
More frugal homeowners can spend $1,000 to buy Phos-Chek, the same retardant used by the U.S. Forest Service but without the red coloring. The concentrate is mixed with water and applied with a hose.
AIG's private fire-service approach isn't exactly new. In the 1800s, many firefighters worked for for-profit companies and would battle only blazes for those with insurance. AIG began its Private Client Group insurance in 2000 and it has since grown to almost $1 billion in gross premiums.
Besides specialty fire protection, in Florida AIG offers a similar service for hurricanes, dispatching predisaster consultants to assess shutter protection, property storage and landscaping.
Home-restoration teams head in after storms to help with immediate repairs, even before claims are reported, said Todd Triano, vice president of loss prevention for AIG Private Client Group.
On Thursday, AIG and Firebreak teams fanned out across San Diego County, returning to homes they had sprayed to assess saves and losses.
On one block of Zumaque Street in Rancho Santa Fe, with homes burnt to the ground all around them, Aamodt surveyed two surviving homes bounded by blackened mountainside and singed trees.
"This is a classic use of Phos-Chek," Aamodt said, pointing at shrubs that were half-blackened and half-green. "It chars at the edge of the Phos-Chek line and then it stops. ... This is a great feeling. We're ecstatic."
Los Angeles Times reporter Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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