My Own Private Firefighter
by Joe Lindsey
Boulder’s historic Fourmile Canyon blaze raised a difficult question: Should anyone be able to contract personal firefighters?
In the hours after the Fourmile fire blew up in Boulder County, but before it destroyed 157 homes and became the most expensive wildfire in state history, trucks filled with firefighters streamed up the foothills to the blaze perimeter. Most were local or federal firefighting outfits, but a small group of 13 firefighters, in five engines, had a special mission: to protect specific homes from the conflagration.
The firefighters were contractors for Chubb Group of Insurance Companies wildfire defense service and were headed to the homes of policyholders who had opted into wildfire coverage. During the Fourmile blaze, three Chubb policyholders lost their homes, but the homes of another 10 were saved. These private firefighters shut windows to keep flying embers out and managed small flareups on the properties.
Reactions to the hired guns, not surprisingly, broke down two ways: People who said I wish I could have had that, and, people who wondered Who do these people think they are? “When I first heard about it, I thought, ‘No way; that’s impossible,’ ” says Pat Minniear, a 22-year resident of Four Mile Canyon, who lost his home in the blaze. “The fire was happening on so many fronts that it needed as much help (to fight it) as possible,” he says. “If you come into a fire zone with that many structures threatened and you’re that good at your job, you should help the entire effort.”
Chubb’s firefighters—hired via a contracted company named Wildfire Defense Systems Inc.—can be made available to join the general effort. But, says WDS president David Torgerson, contract services like his are only called in as a last resort, after all public resources are used first. “We’re adding resources,” he says, “not taking them away.”
“I hold nothing against Chubb,” says Four Mile volunteer fire chief Bret Gibson. “Their contractors were respectful and integrated well with the public firefighting effort.”
In fact, Wildfire Defense Systems firefighters likely helped out the community more than it knows by saving those 10 homes. The local mountain fire districts are staffed by volunteers, with shoestring budgets funded by property taxes—the same taxes that normally come from homes now burned to the ground. “We have roughly a 50-percent reduction in value in those three districts,” says Boulder County assessor Jerry Roberts. That means a massive reduction in revenue for 2011.
Donations from a benefit concert and successful mill levy ballot issues will offset much of the hit for 2011. But some of the burned properties won’t contribute significant property taxes for years to come, drawing out the pain for fire protection districts. In a twist, the homes that Chubb’s firefighters saved will contribute to the area’s coffers.
Although the Four Mile Fire Department must replace nearly $500,000 in destroyed equipment, including a firehouse and one of its seven engines, Gibson believes his fire department is in decent shape for 2011. It’s the years after—when residents rebuild, but tax revenues still languish—that have him concerned about his 45-member volunteer department’s ability to respond to another major fire.
Chubb’s firefighters will be there to defend their clients’ homes, and Chubb’s impressive save rate will likely attract more policyholders, which may help preserve even more homes the next time around. But while Gibson is thankful for the help, the privatization of protection concerns him. “In the early days of this country, private fire companies would respond to a house fire and bid to put it out,” he says. “And sometimes they’d put in their own hydrant, which the other companies couldn’t use, of course. I wonder if maybe we’re not going backward a little bit.”