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Fire-fighters from around the country descended en masse on southern California last week when the Woolsey Fire struck. But scattered here and there among this publicly funded force was a less well-known feature of the country’s emergency response landscape: private fire fighters.
The commentariat immediately seized on news reports that the Kardashians had hired a private — and presumably very expensive — fire-fighting team to help save their Hidden Hills gated community in Calabasas, an effort that wound up saving dozens of adjacent homes as well.
But while the idea that the rich and famous were benefitting from specially catered “concierge” fire protection touched a raw nerve, the fact is private fire fighters have been a key part of the country’s flame-suppressing resource array since at least the 1980s. And the vast majority of the companies work directly for the federal government, or for large insurance companies, meaning they don’t do house calls.
So says David Torgerson, head of Montana-based Wildfire Defense Systems (WDS), which sent 53 engines to California to help battle the Woolsey and Camp fires.
“We don’t work for landowners, we don’t work for private people,” says Torgerson, “We serve insured wildfire programs.”
In any event, the Kardashians aren’t the only entities that have their own protection plans in place. The Mountains Recreation and Conversation Authority, which manages federal, state and county lands across Southern California — some which were destroyed by Woolsey — also maintains its own fire-fighting force.
The more boutique-y services used by the Kardashians, often referred to as a “concierge” fire-fighting squad, offer the rare exception in this growing private industry. And they’re not always welcomed by fire-fighting unions and other private companies, which look askance at outfits that go rogue, especially in such dangerous conditions.
Fire-fighting unions have gone so far as to say that private companies sending unauthorized fire fighters into infernos like Woolsey hurt more than they help.
“We’re not involved in or associated with those situations,” says Torgerson of the operation that saved the Kardashian home, “All I can say is that the best way to manage things is to be properly trained and to be complying with all requirements and legislation, which is what we do.”
Most of these private companies, including WDS, work directly with the incident commander on any given fire, coordinating their resources at the discretion of the state agencies that are usually already in the fight and working behind established fire lines.
Torgerson says his company is granted the access it asks for about 96 percent of the time. In the last decade WDS has worked on more than 550 fires, and claims a 100 percent safety rate.
Some private firms have been criticized for flouting requirements that they check in with local authorities before entering fire zones. In 2019, a law will go into effect requiring more rigid compliance for private companies wishing to work alongside state and county fire fighters in high-impact destruction areas like those created by the Woolsey and Camp fires.
“We had very good coordination with Cal Fire and other jurisdictions,” says Torgerson, who adds that his crew helped save “hundreds of homes” in the Woolsey fire.
The market for private fire-fighting services is growing, however, and increasingly non-Kardashians can look to insurers for private coverage (annual premiums range from four to six figures, depending on the property): AIG offers a “Wildfire Protection Unit,” and firms including Chubb and Nationwide work with contractors like WDS.
Torgerson says that more than 90 percent of the homes it ends up servicing are “average value properties.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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