When it comes to saving homes, private firefighters protect the wealthy

But that’s not what Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority Battalion Chief Spencer Andreis and many other firefighters responding to these deadly fires saw.

Andreis hadn’t yet gone to bed the night of Oct. 8 when the fires broke out. A native of Santa Rosa, Andreis, 38, has been fighting fires in California for 21 years.

He was tasked with protecting the southern area in the city of Sonoma, on the sloping hillsides and valleys that would later come under threat by fires burning in multiple directions.

When it comes to saving homes, private firefighters protect the wealthy
When it comes to saving homes, private firefighters protect the wealthy

“For most of us, this was like Armageddon,” said Andreis. “As I was out there fighting the fires, it was burning in our own neighborhoods where our loved ones are. I hope we never see anything like it again.”

Andreis fought on the frontline of what he calls the most devastating wildfires he’d ever seen, for five straight days. As he and his fellow firefighters headed into the battle, they came across something else they’d never before seen: “private” firefighters.

“With the southern LNU complex [fire], they didn’t come to the morning briefing. I just happened upon them,” recalled Andreis.

“They don’t play well with us even though they’ll tell you they do. They don’t check in with us, they come and go as they please.”

“They don’t play well with us even though they’ll tell you they do. They don’t check in with us, they come and go as they please,” said Andreis, referring to these outside forces entering the fire zone.

Cal Fire’s McLean emphasized that the function of these privately funded forces is meant only to be preventative, not to enter evacuation zones or stay and “make a stand” to an approaching fire. Doing so would be grounds for Cal Fire to order these outside firefighters to leave the fire zone.

“Our primary function is to make sure the public is safe and taken care of. All these other external factors, as they come in, then we have to think about them,” said McLean, noting that Cal Fire essentially treats these private firefighters as an “external component,” like a homeowner would be.

Cal Fire’s McLean says he is not aware of any specific incidents where private firefighters actually caused any “problems.”

“They’re a help because of the preventative aspects,” said McLean. “We can work together, we just need to make sure we do work together,” he said.

AIG maintains that their “Wildfire Protection Unit,” which was also dispatched to wine country last October, is also focused on prevention. Their program served 2,700 customers in California, Colorado, and Texas last year, according to Poux. This includes surveying a policyholder’s home and identifying risks that would make it more susceptible to burn down in a fire — like leaves in gutters, or flammable plants or mulch near the home.

Image: Global insurance company AIG dispatched crews from their "Wildfire Protection Unit"
Global insurance company AIG dispatched crews from their “Wildfire Protection Unit” to protect policyholder homes during the deadly Tubbs Fire. “Mitigation specialists” clear a fallen tree from the path to a policyholder’s home in October 2017.Courtesy American International Group, Inc.

But, “Of course the sexy part is we can go in behind an active fire and lay down some fire retardant and that’s fantastic,” said Poux. The two-man teams that respond in the event of a threatening fire carry fire retardant and “hundreds of gallons” of water to protect properties.

“We check in at incident command centers and say, ‘Hi, we are AIG, we have all the safety equipment to be behind evacuation lines,'” he explained.

But in numerous cases, according to interviews with firefighters from multiple responding fire departments in the Sonoma fires, these “private” firefighters often did not check in with incident command.

“It’s like, ‘Who are you? Why didn’t you check in?'” Andreis remembers thinking as he was responding to the fires. “How could we get aid to them if we needed to? It makes our job tougher in terms of knowing where resources are,” he said.

Sonoma Valley Fire Volunteer Batallion Chief Chris Landry, 41, also encountered private firefighters in October when he responded to the deadly Nuns Fire in the hills between the cities of Sonoma and Napa. At the time, fire was still tearing through dry grass on both sides of the road, downed powerlines, and still-burning trees littered the roadway.

“I came across them on Trinity Road when I was checking on structures and said, ‘Hey, have you checked in with the division?’ and they said ‘Yes.’ Then I asked at incident command and they said ‘No’ [they had not checked in],” said Landry, emphasizing the importance of knowing where crews and personnel are at all times, especially in a dangerous, active fire.

“If I’m in charge of a division, I know all the engines working in my division because they are assigned to the incident. We have communications with them. If the fire is headed their way, I can call them [on the radio] and say, ‘The fire’s headed your way,'” said Landry.

But that’s not necessarily the case with these private companies.

“I’ve never seen them check in,” Landry told NBC News. “We don’t have common communication. I don’t know what they’re qualified at. I don’t know where they are, because I’m not supervising them. They report to the insurer,” he said.

Questions about training

There’s also concern about the oversight and training of these outside firefighting forces. “We don’t know their equipment capabilities, their training, their level of experience,” said Landry.

According to AIG’s Poux, all their responding personnel are former firefighters trained extensively in wildfire mitigation. AIG’s “wildfire battalions,” teams of two, conduct week-long training exercises annually to refresh safety procedures and protocols, according to the company.

The state of California has strict standards and guidelines for participating departments and agencies that respond to emergencies like wildfires — including the training of first responders and maintenance of equipment. But, according to Cal Fire, only the insurance companies oversee their firefighters, and Cal Fire has no oversight of their training or qualifications.

“We don’t have their records or oversight of that. So who is watching? Who do they answer to?” asked Cal Fire Deputy Chief of Information Scott McLean. “The insurance companies are responsible for these individuals,” said McLean.

A representative for the California Department of Insurance declined to comment for this story, but said the agency has no authority over firefighters dispatched by insurance companies, and that they don’t regulate them, either.

In response, AIG’s Poux, said, “I cannot overemphasize the importance of safety for our employees.” When they are on an active fire scene, AIG’s responders do make an effort to check in at incident command centers and to clone their radios, according to the company.

As wildfires in California wreak unprecedented levels of destruction, private firefighting services are one way the insurance companies are trying fight back. At last tally, October’s and December’s deadly California wildfires generated nearly $12 billion in claims, making them the costliest in California history, according to the California Insurance Department.

But for some — including many fighting these fires on the front line — there are greater costs at stake here.

“I understand where the insurance companies are coming from,” said Battalion Chief Landry. “But we don’t look at one house separate from another based on who the insurer is. I could care less who owns the house, I just want to save as many as possible — and do it safely without endangering my crews.”

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