- The Woolsey fire has burned nearly 100,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
- TMZ reported that Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West hired a team of private firefighters to protect their $US60 million Hidden Hills home when the flames approached their neighbourhood.
- This is more common than you may think.
- Many insurance companies employ private firefighting teams; sometimes policyholders who pay a higher premium get the perk, but not always.
The Woolsey fire has burned nearly 100,000 acres in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Thousands of people in mobile-home parks and tony-gated communities alike have been displaced. Many have lost their homes completely.
California government officials have estimated that more than 1 million homes throughout the state are located in "high-risk" fire areas. That's a lot of property to protect when a fast-moving wildfire is approaching, and county fire departments and volunteers often can't manage the job alone.
So, when the Woolsey fire approached celebrity power couple Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West's $US60 million Hidden Hills property last week, TMZ reported that they called on a "private team of firefighters" to help. Their mansion was ultimately saved from destruction, as were their neighbours' homes.
To be clear, the Wests don't have a team of firefighters on speed dial akin to a Kardashian "glam squad." The benefit likely comes from their insurance company, to which they pay a premium - and probably a steep one at that, considering they're located in a "very high fire hazard severity zone" as deemed by Cal Fire.
Wildfire Defence Systems is one of America's largest groups of private firefighters. The Montana-based company is contracted with several insurers, including multinational-insurance-company Chubb, which dispatches its employees to 21 states to supplement the efforts of first responders during a wildfire. They also perform preventive measures in high-risk areas, like clearing flammable debris and spraying flame retardant around a property.
Some insurance companies employ their own firefighting groups. American International Group's (AIG) "Wildfire Protection Unit" serves policyholders in the Private Client Group, Stephen Poux, the insurance company's global head of risk management and loss prevention told NBC News.
These policyholders make up 42% of the Forbes 400 rich list, Poux added, and they pay anywhere from "several thousand dollars to several tens-of-thousands" to insure their homes against fires and gain access to these private firefighting teams.
It's nice that people are able to protect their homes, but the high cost of coverage for these services is problematic, argues Robert Raymond in the Huffington Post. "The real injustice in this story is structural inequality," he wrote. "Wealth shouldn't mean the difference between a home that burns down and a home that doesn't. A society where wealth allows one neighbourhood to be saved, while a poorer neighbourhood goes up in flames because the people there weren't able to purchase the same resources, is inherently unjust."
But David Torgerson, the president of Wildfire Defence Systems, said their services aren't only available to the affluent. In fact, he told The Atlantic, 9 in 10 homes they protect are of "average value" and not covered through insurance companies specific to wealthy homeowners.
"We serve nearly a dozen [insurance companies]," Torgerson said. "If anybody wants to have this supplemental response capability during a fire, they need to pick an insurance company that has it." He added that with the growing threat of climate change, private firefighting services are more necessary than ever.
A Sonoma County couple who spoke to NBC News credits the supplemental efforts of Wildfire Defence Systems for saving their home during the wine country wildfire last fall - the most destructive in California history.
The couple said they didn't know they had fire protection under their policy until Chubb contacted them to offer an update on their home. Some of their neighbours weren't so lucky. Unlike publicly funded firefighters, Torgerson said, "We're only allowed to access the properties that we're given permission to access by policyholders."
Some critics also express concern over whether private firefighters contracted by insurance companies are properly trained and adherent to plans and regulations set in place by public fire stations.