Living with Fire III: Private sector offers new approach to public wildfire problem
In this three-part series, Montana Free Press examines how federal land management agencies have approached wildfire in the past and highlights public sector efforts to make communities more resilient through land-use planning, strategic building processes, and targeted fuel reduction treatments. In Part 3, we explore a private sector development: the growth of private firefighting companies deployed by insurance companies to protect properties from loss by wildfire.
Last November, celebrity Kim Kardashian sparked a national conversation by sharing that private firefighters had spared the $60 million southern California home she shares with musician Kanye West from almost certain destruction by the Woolsey Fire.
By the time firefighters — mostly the government-employed variety — contained the 97,000-acre fire more than a week later, it had claimed three lives, burned more than 1,600 structures, and damaged part of a nuclear reactor testing facility.
Bozeman-based Wildfire Defense Systems was one of the private firefighting resources on the Woolsey scene, its 40-plus engines charged with preventing properties covered by its insurance-company clients from burning down.
The private firefighting model isn’t new — Wildfire Defense Systems was founded in 2001 and started working with insurance companies in 2008 — but it has gained greater notice and scrutiny in the wake of the Woolsey Fire. Before the smoke had cleared, stories in The Atlantic and CBS questioned the fairness of the practice.
Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College and author of Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy, said he’s watched the private firefighting trend develop in Malibu, California, with fascination and concern.
“It means that the elite with disposable cash can be better protected than those who depend on public agencies,” he said.
Wildfire Defense Systems founder and CEO David Torgerson said he doesn’t see it that way.
“Wildfire conditions are getting worse, building in the [Wildland]-Urban Interface is increasing, and resources at all levels are being strained. There is a role that the private sector can play” he said.
Last summer, Wildfire Defense Systems moved into a sprawling new two-story facility west of Bozeman with a view of the Bridger Mountains. On a recent June day, white wildfire engines emblazoned with blue “Insurance Resource” identifiers sat parked behind a locked gate, outfitted with water tanks, hoses, and structure protection materials like sprinkler systems and fire-blocking gels.
Inside, employees working on the predictive services end of the businessmonitored wildfires nationwide in a space that resembles a television newsroom. More than a dozen workstations face a screen that covers most of a wall. Employees track active fires and their potential to reach properties insured by their clients, and prepare a response if necessary.
When Torgerson first started this work, his firefighters would be out on assignments three months of the year. “Now we’re on task 12 months a year,” Torgerson said. “Our operations never shut down.” He said Wildfire Defense Systems handles about 90 percent of the business in the U.S. insurance space, and is expanding into Europe with a recently opened office in Prague.
Wildfire Defense Systems dispatches as many as 250 firefighters (many of whom previously worked for municipal, state, or federal agencies) and 70 engines to wildfires in its 20–state coverage area during the peak of fire season. To date, Wildfire Defense Systems crews have responded to nearly 600 fires.
Torgerson’s company isn’t set up to provide the first resource on fires, he said — the company doesn’t have that kind of geographic reach and staffing. And its objectives are different. Federal and state firefighters employed by agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are generally tasked with containing fires. Wildfire Defense Systems focuses on protecting client-insured structures in a fire’s path.
“There isn’t anything that replaces or supplants public sector services when wildfire happens,” Torgerson said.
Even having worked in the insurance space for over a decade, Torgerson said, his employees still occasionally encounter friction with public firefighters.
“We’re the new kids on the block, [even though] we operate in a similar organizational structure and operational structure as our government peers,” he said.
Lucas Spelman, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Suppression, better known as CAL FIRE, said he hasn’t worked a large fire in California, where private resources are more commonly deployed than in Montana, that didn’t include an insurance-related firefighting presence, and he expects their numbers to grow.
“The biggest thing for us is the accountability portion of it, and not knowing what their level of training is,” Spelman said, adding that private firefighters sometimes fail to check in with public fire management teams. “Ultimately we don’t want anybody to get hurt, regardless of why they’re there, [especially] given the type of fire weather behavior we’ve been having in the state the last five to 10 years.”
All Wildfire Defense Systems personnel and equipment are subject to the same National Incident Management System standards used to certify and manage other companies that contract with the federal government on fires, Torgerson said.
Wildfire Defense Systems provides risk assessment and mitigation to as many as 1,000 homes on larger fires, Torgerson said. By the company’s count, it has protected millions of properties, saving clients, who advertise wildfire protection services at no additional cost to policyholders, from more than $750 million in losses.
One of his company’s clients, Nationwide Private Client, bills itself as a “specialized white glove service for affluent individuals with distinct property and casualty insurance needs,” but Torgerson said not all the homes the company responds to are mansions.
“Ninety percent of the properties are average-value properties,” he said.
A spokesman for multinational insurance giant Chubb, another Torgerson client, emailed MTFP stating that it has expanded its offerings to 18 states “to help minimize potential losses associated with wildfires” in the course of the company’s decade-long partnership with Wildfire Defense Systems.
According to the National Wildfire Suppression Association, 40 percent of wildland fire suppression services nationwide are provided by private contractors, which have been active since the early 1980s due in part to policies enacted by former president Ronald Reagan, and furthered by Bill Clinton, that replaced segments of the federal workforce with private industry. Taxpayers don’t foot the bill for Wildfire Defense Systems dispatches; insurance companies do.
Like Torgerson, Windswept Wildfire owner Chris Schiefelbein has been busy. Half of his Montana City-based business resembles Wildfire Defense Systems’ origins, contracting with the U.S. Forest Service and deploying engines and firefighters nationwide to work alongside public resources in traditional fire suppression.
Schiefelbein estimates Windswept Wildfire has responded to more than 500 fires since its founding 15 years ago. Eleven years ago he expanded the business to include vegetation reduction on landscapes vulnerable to wildfire, typically long before they’re actively threatened. He works with private property owners and public entities on projects that cost between $300 and $6,000 per treated acre, depending on topography and vegetation type and density.
Business has been so good that he’s adding eight to 10 additional employees to his 20-person crew. He said he’s worked on about 500 fuel reduction projects, including a decade-long undertaking to cut a fuel break around the city of Helena and remove beetle-killed pine trees from the 900-acre Mount Helena City Park. Like the vast majority of Schiefelbein’s projects, it’s grant-supported, receivingfunding from the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Schiefelbein said he’s surprised more people don’t invest in such projects, given the trajectory of wildfire and development in the Wildland-Urban Interface.
“People, in general, are more reactive than proactive,” he said, adding that cost and some landowners’ preference for treed landscapes can play a role as well.
There does appear to be a need, though. According to data analytics and risk assessment firm Versik, 28 percent of Montana households are at high or extreme risk from wildfires, making Montana the national leader by that metric.
That could also mean that Wildfire Defense Systems and other companies will expand their footprints on Montana wildfires in the coming decades. While neither the National Interagency Fire Center nor the National Association of Insurance Commissioners tracks the number of private firefighting companies working with insurance companies, sources interviewed for this story agree it’s a growing trend.
“Dave Torgerson kind of broke the mold doing the insurance program stuff, and I can see where that’s going to be a real big thing in the future,” Schiefelbein said. “There just [aren’t] enough resources and capability for the government to protect all these homes.”
Billings native Amand Eggert is a freelance journalist and contributor to Montana Free Press. A graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism, Eggert has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. She’s currently a freelance writer covering stories about the environment, the impact of public policy, and what it means to live in the Mountain West in the 21st century.