AIG's private fire service approach isn't exactly new. In the 1800s, many firefighters worked for for-profit companies and would battle blazes only for those with insurance. Insurers in places including Richmond, Va., gave their clients plaques to alert crews that their homes had coverage.
Besides specialty fire protection, in Florida AIG offers a similar service for hurricanes, dispatching pre-disaster 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 all around burnt to the ground, 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."
One of the houses is owned by Kerry Roland, who returned home Thursday feeling lucky. Three houses to the south and one just north were gone.
Roland said she believed a number of factors contributed to the save, including firefighters who had put out a flare-up on her roof before AIG arrived; sprinklers she kept running; and the location of her house, on the crest of the ridge.
"When I packed up and left on Monday morning, I didn't think our home would survive," said Roland, 51. "It's amazing, isn't it? My property and the one opposite me, we both had fire retardant used."
Local firefighters have mixed opinions about the value of services such as Firebreak.
Capt. Dan Froelich of San Diego Fire and Rescue said he was concerned what could happen if private companies sent undertrained, ill-equipped crews into fire zones and the crews got trapped and needed rescuing.
But Maurice Luque, a spokesman for San Diego Fire and Rescue, said fire retardant could be effective.
"The stuff works really well," he said, noting that private companies are used more in eastern San Diego County.
In such places, he said, there are not many fire agencies and response times can be long. "The residents have to fend for themselves in these mountain or remote areas," he said.
Times staff writer Tami Abdollah contributed to this report.