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In California, Do Private Firefighters Have a Role to Play in Battling Wildfires?

Public good or private right? The debate rages on.

Los Angeles County firefighters attack flames approaching the Salvation Army camps in Malibu Creek State Park. David McNew/Getty Images

The fire that burned down much of Malibu in November began like all fires, which is to say it started small. In this case, its first flames licked the brush some distance away, about 35 miles inland, across a freeway and a mountain range, in a narrow, scrub-choked canyon known as Woolsey. The canyon gave the fire its name, but it was the winds—hot, desert winds called Santa Anas—that blew the first night up to 60 miles per hour and that sent the flames screaming down the mountains and blasting their way out to the coast.

By 5:30 the next evening, November 9, the winds were so strong and visibility so poor that all aircraft dropping retardant to slow the fire’s march had been grounded. Strike teams—crews of five fire engines, each with three or four firefighters, plus a lead vehicle—were in short supply, spread thin by the Camp Fire in Northern California, which had leveled much of the town of Paradise, and the Hill Fire, which was burning up thousands of acres in Ventura County.

Big conflagrations are complicated affairs, and more and more common—not just in the American West but everywhere, from Australia to India. Fueling this change is a warming Earth, which brings more hot desert winds like the ones that stoked Woolsey and more intense storms, which mean more lightning strikes, downed power lines, sparks. And in between the burns, longer stretches of tinder-forming drought. Couple these dire climactic developments with the fact that people are building more—and larger—homes in particularly fire-prone wilderness areas than at any time in history, and you’ve got a near-perfect cocktail for not just an uptick in disaster but also a never-ending cataclysmic fire season.

An LA County fire helicopter takes off from the Zuma Beach helipad during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu on Friday, Nov. 9, 2018.

An LA County fire helicopter takes off from the Zuma Beach helipad during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu.  Scott Varley/Digital First Media/Torrance Daily Breeze/Getty Images

Soon after Woolsey, another narrative emerged, this one not about the power of Mother Nature but the power—and limits—of money. It was, like the beginning of a fire, small. And it, too, spread quickly and irrevocably like—well, like a wildfire.

By the morning of November 9, a citywide evacuation order for Malibu had brought absolute gridlock to the Pacific Coast Highway heading south to Los Angeles. Malibu is a coastal city filled with multimillion-dollar beach houses long favored by celebrities and power brokers. It’s also where the Santa Monica Mountains plunge into the Pacific. The landscape is filled with narrow canyons and windy roadways—choke points aplenty during a mass exodus. Very few evacuating drivers headed north, where they were forced to wait out the crisis in a big beach parking lot in Zuma. Cell service was nearly nonexistent, owing to burned cell towers. Downed power lines caused more bottlenecks and meant that the water pumps needed by the fire crews weren’t working.

Many residents were left stuck in traffic right alongside fire crews, who were also stuck waiting in staging areas, at the sides of roads, or navigating against the crawling line of cars, a giant, awkward, red salmon struggling to swim upstream. Or, worse, the fire engines were just sitting there, parked, as if the firefighters did not know where to go or what to do.

John Watkin, who lives in the western part of Malibu, near Point Dume, describes exactly such a scene. He’d rolled into a gas station, hoping to fill up enough to leave town, when he saw about half a dozen fire trucks parked at the entrance to Corral Canyon, firefighters in the driving seats. He got out of his car and walked over. “I asked them, ‘What are you guys doing?’” Watkin recalls, “and they said, ‘Well, we’re waiting to hear some orders.’”

“Orders?” Watkin said. “Point Dume is on fire! Get out there and do your job!” By this point, Watkin, who lived inland, was certain his house was gone—and it was. But his friends still had a chance. The firefighters asked him for the cross streets, for directions to the fire. He couldn’t believe it. “If only there’d been more organization,” Watkin says, sighing.

By midday, as the winds continued and the fire bore down, homes throughout the city began to burn, and, alongside all the fear and panic, a deep anger began to take hold. Why weren’t the fire crews doing more? Why were they just sitting there? In this time of pronounced income inequality and political division, was the seeming inaction a result of simmering resentment toward Malibu’s obviously affluent homeowners?

The Santa Monica Mountains are seen left blackened by the Woolsey Fire near Malibu, California on November 14, 2018.

The Santa Monica Mountains are seen left blackened by the Woolsey Fire near Malibu.  David McNew/Getty Images

A few months after the fire, the outrage boiled over and out into a public forum, when the Los Angeles County Fire Department met with Malibu residents at the town’s city hall. One audience member said he watched as 10 fire trucks “sat there for three-and-a-half hours while
19 houses burned down.” Los Angeles County Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Ewald tried to explain—to a reception of boos and jeers—that it was often left to individual fire captains to assess whether it was safe to move closer to a fire line. Even so, both Malibu and Los Angeles have launched investigations into why the response was so seemingly haphazard and the evacuation so chaotic.

But many houses had been saved, both in Malibu and famously—notoriously, by this point—on the opposite side of the Santa Monica Mountains, where Kim Kardashian West called upon a private agency to protect her home in Hidden Hills. The exclusive, concierge firefighting force she called in revealed a longstanding wrinkle in our concept of how fires are fought and just who is doing the fighting. Since the 1980s, a not insignificant portion of wilderness burns has spread public and state agencies thin enough that private industry has stepped in. Most of the time, the role has been that of a stopgap, as basic as a timber company sending out some of its crew and equipment to clear a firebreak and haul water, or a rancher loaning a few aircraft to dump fire retardant in the backcountry. But in the past decade or so, the private firefighting industry has taken a more active role on the frontlines.

The company Kardashian West reportedly called is Consumer Fire Products, which has an office in Goleta. Irene Rhodes, CFP’s founder and CEO, is tightlipped about her clientele. A former firefighter, Rhodes started her business 21 years ago. “I know most of these guys; the guys running these fires now are guys I fought fires with,” Rhodes says. “One of the reason I left the fire service was because they didn’t want a woman around.” She had crews working throughout Woolsey, not only in Hidden Hills but also in Malibu. One of her customers—we’ll call him Fred—credits CFP with saving his house after he’d evacuated during a previous fire, in Bel-Air. “All I’ll say is that it gives tremendous peace of mind,” Fred says, “to know an outfit with a 100 percent protection rate is headed to your property.”

Fred, like every homeowner CFP deals with, was assigned a customer code, a string of numbers, directly from Rhodes. From then on, everyone at the company called him and his property by that code to protect his identity while they communicated over radio. Once on site, CFP begins filing reports to the customer, and checks back in or even stays on the property, as needed, not just for fighting fire but in the aftermath.

“We become like a security company,” Rhodes explains. Prices, which Rhodes would not disclose, are based on the number of structures and property size. Many of CFP’s customers come through referrals. “We’re, like, the best kept secret for A-list clientele. Gavin de Becker”—the elite security specialist—“refers us all the time.” In some ways the company’s mandate has a stripped-down clarity to it that the public agencies don’t. “We’re just about saving homes,” Rhodes says.

Such sharp focus can cause problems. Public firefighting agencies certainly want to save homes, too, but their priority is saving lives and containing the fire. Sometimes, in the process, houses burn. And sometimes, the private outfits’ single goal of saving homes can get in the way of the public agencies’ overall mission.

A house burns during the Woolsey Fire on November 9, 2018 in Malibu, California. - About 75,000 homes have been evacuated in Los Angeles and Ventura counties due to two fires in the region. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

A house burns during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu.  Robyn Beck/Getty Images

Spencer Andreis, a battalion chief for Sonoma Valley Fire, says he’s seen private crews barge into active areas with very little to no warning, which can put everyone at great risk. When firefighters from a private agency are on the ground near a fire line, it might prevent air drops of retardant from swooping in, for fear of endangering the crew on the ground. But calling off the air drop last minute can be risky for the pilot in low visibility, windy conditions. It also delays the overall strategy of fire containment. “They don’t properly check in,” Andreis says, of the privates. “They don’t know what our plan is for the day. They don’t know our overall tactical strategies or what fire behavior we’re anticipating. They are being essentially rogue.”

Andreis has been fighting fires for 23 years throughout California and the West. He’s only ever had trouble with private forces more recently, in wealthier zip codes. “You go to the National Forest, you don’t see private storming in,” he says. “You go to Malibu, Santa Barbara, Sonoma—that’s where they show up. Where there’s money and insurance.” Several insurance companies, including USAA and Chubb, contract with private companies such as Wildfire Defense Systems. The reasoning is simple: Paying for a private fire crew is often less expensive than rebuilding an entire home were it to burn down. Even an insurance policy promising protection, though, is no guarantee a house will remain standing.

One thing that might have helped the chaotic situation was a state law passed last summer—but that will not go into effect until later this year—that requires anyone appearing on the scene of a fire to check in with an incident commander, who oversees all the moving parts—the various agencies, public and private— that are attempting to contain a blaze. This law goes for individuals and even homeowners as well, not just crews.

In Malibu, many residents refused a mandatory evacuation order and stayed, determined to battle on their own with foam systems or garden hoses, much to the consternation of firefighting forces. “A lot of people can die in a situation like that,” says Sam DiGiovanna, an ex-fire chief of crews both public and private, and the coordinator of the Verdugo Fire Academy. “You’re ineffective, doing that. You’re putting yourself in danger and putting fire service personnel in danger. If you’re asked to evacuate, evacuate.”

The incident at the Kardashian complex, in the town of Hidden Hills, perfectly encapsulates an ongoing, never-ending debate not just among fire professionals, but in the nation at large, between a public good and a private right. Hidden Hills has no dedicated fire department; the town’s streets are all private; it’s essentially a gated community, only incorporated, serviced primarily by private industry, with occasional contracts for public agencies in the neighboring city of Calabasas. Of course, when public firefighting departments are spread thin, they should be allowed to call upon private agencies, as they often do. But private agencies hired by private citizens can muddy those waters and return firefighting to an earlier, messier, more unjust time.

The ruins of a ocean view home are seen in the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, in Malibu, California on November 14, 2018.

The aftermath of the Woolsey Fire.  David McNew/Getty Images

In London, in the 17th through 19th centuries, firefighting was privatized, led primarily by fire insurance companies, which grew out of the Great Fire in 1666. The fire brigades would compete, and sabotage one another and even building owners who wouldn’t take out policies. Across the Atlantic, the American colonies relied on volunteer bucket brigades; in the 19th century, fire companies were fierce rivals trying to earn insurance payouts. Gradually, the notion that firefighting was primarily a civic activity took hold. Today, we’re in grayer territory, a mix of public and private, civic and not.

And yet, as in the health care debate, our sense of fairness and democracy can cause us to feel outrage at the special treatment of those wealthy enough to call in a private crew last minute, or afford an insurance policy that has a crew of its own. “I have mixed feeling about it,” is how DiGiovanna put it to me.

One problem, as DiGiovanna sees it, is that some of the people on the private crews “may have taken just a class or two. They’re making judgements about things with little to no real experience, and going into areas where they might not belong. I’m going to say this, first and foremost: Leave it to the professionals. You wouldn’t just let a heart doctor operate on you who’s done it a few times before. Same goes for fire crews.”

Soon after I first spoke to DiGiovanna, he called me. I was out on the road, driving through some of the Woolsey burn area in Thousand Oaks, the inland side of the Santa Monica range from Malibu. I had come up to a cul-de-sac where several houses had been destroyed,and several more, seemingly randomly, were perfectly intact. There had been some private crews deployed here, via insurance companies, but I wasn’t certain that the houses that were left standing had been houses saved by the privates. Even a homeowner I spoke to on the street seemed baffled—she knew her family didn’t have insurance that came with a private crew, but her neighbor did, and the neighbor lost his home while hers was standing. Fire is like that, DiGiovanna said over the phone. “The fury of fire—it doesn’t discriminate,” he told me. It’s random and merciless. You could do everything right and still lose your house.

As I walked the cul-de-sac in Thousand Oaks, it began to rain, and the freshly charred earth gave off a rich, smoldering scent. It had rained just days after the fire, too, and already shoots of grasses and wildflowers were emerging from the soil. Still on the phone, DiGiovanna said: “The hillsides are being watered and the grass is growing. I see it, the green, but you know what? It will be hot soon, that grass will dry right up, and we’ll be right back in the pattern we were in, or worse.”

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