Private fire crews find rich niche

Saillant and Chong are Times staff writers.

As Southern California deals with the reality of recurring, destructive wildfires, a sometimes-controversial cottage industry of private response teams has sprung up to help save the homes of well-to-do clients.

Such teams were highly visible in the Tea fire, which raged across one of the nation’s costliest neighborhoods, destroying 210 homes and damaging nine others.

Peter Jacobson believes one of these teams saved his home. The palm trees towering over his Montecito estate are charred black, but the retired developer’s luxurious Italian villa-style home survived the devastating Nov. 13 fire mostly intact.


A few hundreds yards away, all that’s left of Hollywood uber-producer Marcy Carsey’s $14-million retreat is a partial brick wall, jutting jagged toward the sky, and a still-green lawn with killer ocean views.

Why was Jacobson so lucky?

He credits Firebreak, which coated vegetation around his home with fire retardant and moved lawn chairs and other flammable items away from the home as flames approached the area after sundown. .

“They saved my house. Homes around me burned, but mine didn’t,” Jacobson said of the company, which was dispatched by his insurer, AIG.

AIG offers the extra protection free of charge to policyholders whose homes are worth $1 million or more or who pay at least $10,000 a year in premiums. Chubb Insurance this year introduced its own response teams. Any Chubb policyholder living in a fire-prone area can sign up for the free service, said Scott Spencer, senior vice president for loss prevention.

The hired troops were a presence in the most recent round of wildfires in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Orange counties. AIG says it is providing a valuable service that supplements, but doesn’t replace, the work of public fire agencies. Homeowners are happy when homes and memories are saved, and AIG saves money in the long run, spokesman Peter Tulupman said.

With wildfires a frequent worry in many parts of California, such private response teams are becoming more commonplace.


But as their profile grows, so does the debate within public fire agencies about whether the private firms are more of a help or hindrance.

Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Eli Iskow said the companies can be a valuable resource, but they tend to exaggerate the number of homes they save and sometimes get in the way.

On a more philosophical level, he questions the social benefit of for-profit firms providing services only for some.

“When firefighters battle flames,” he said of public crews, “they don’t make a distinction between a $50-million Oprah mansion and a tract home.”

Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper, who is vice chairman of Firescope, a statewide panel that makes recommendations on firefighting policy, believes there is a place for private contractors. But their best use, he said, is early in the fire season when they visit homes and suggest ways to reduce fire risks.

“We have found some very reputable contractors and others that are less than reputable,” Roper said. “It’s a hazard if they block an access point or if we end up having to rescue them.”


Roper said he’s seen private trucks using flashing red lights and sirens, violating laws that allow such devices only on public emergency response vehicles.

The problem with private crews, Roper said, is that they are largely unregulated. Fire chiefs throughout Southern California have talked to several of the companies about better policing themselves, he said.

AIG and Chubb acknowledge that there are mavericks. But both companies say the crews they use are held to high standards, and that members graduate from the same fire academies as firefighters who work for public agencies.

Crews for AIG and Chubb operate in much the same way. They make springtime visits to assess wildfire danger, sometimes spraying fire retardant on vegetation to reduce risk.

When a fire starts, trucks head to the area to check on homeowners and see if they need assistance. Using either a gel or foam, they spray retardant on vegetation and sometimes on homes. Once a home is secured, they move on.

“Our intent is to spray with gel as a last resort and then leave it for the firefighters to take over,” said Chubb’s Spencer.


Spencer said the company’s crews physically checked on about 40 homes during the recent round of wildfires. But for now, he was reluctant to call any of them a “save.”

“Some of our competitors define ‘saved’ as, ‘We went there,’ ” Spencer said. “I’m fairly sure one home would have burned down if we hadn’t been there. But I don’t want to say for sure until we know.”

AIG’s crews, equipped with mini-pumper trucks, are instructed to check in with fire commanders before entering active fire zones and to move out quickly when their work is done, said Sam DiGiovanna, who runs AIG’s Firebreak.

“We don’t put ourselves in harm’s way,” said the former Monrovia fire chief. “We’re ahead of the flames.”

DiGiovanna said his crew checked about 75 homes in the first 24 hours of the Tea fire. He said they arrived just hours after the fire started, in the middle of the night, to spray Jacobson’s estate with Phos-Chek, the same fire retardant dropped by air tankers. They also pushed wooden folding chairs away from the side of the Jacobson house, he said.

DiGiovanna counted Jacobson’s home as a save. But Iskow, the Santa Barbara fire captain, said that’s not necessarily the case. When he toured the burn area, he said, he saw plenty of homes standing with burned houses around them.


DiGiovanna also said the AIG service saved 30 to 40 homes earlier this year, in the Gap fire near Goleta in July and last month’s Sesnon fire near Porter Ranch.

Iskow disputed that claim too -- at least for the Gap fire.

“It did blow through a neighborhood and we protected those homes, not the AIG guys,” the fire captain said. “The fire never even came close enough to one home that they claimed to save.”

AIG’s Tulupman said the company no longer provides a specific number of saves. But he said he doesn’t believe DiGiovanna exaggerated.

“I would say, ask our clients,” Tulupman said. “They are very happy with our work.”

What irritates DiGiovanna is that commanders running fire operations don’t hesitate to ask the private crews for help. His teams, he said, recently sprayed retardant to help save a communications tower used by emergency responders in San Diego. In Montecito, at a fire chief’s request, a crew laid down a line of Phos-Chek.

“We’re a great asset when things are going south quickly,” DiGiovanna said. “But otherwise they want to turn their nose up at us.”

Tensions probably will continue, Iskow said, until the industry establishes operational guidelines, sets certification standards and keeps out those who don’t follow them. Those standards would create a “true public-private partnership,” he said.


If the last few years are any indication, public agencies will need all the help they can get, Iskow said.

“No place on Earth is staffed to deal with fires of this magnitude.”