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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

When fires erupted across Sonoma County last month, insurance companies deployed private crews to defend the homes of their clients, a practice that offers additional protection to people living in wildfire-prone areas.

Most of these services are targeted at wealthy homeowners who live in rural enclaves, where insurers are exposed to heavy losses when homes are burned to the ground. But a growing number of insurance companies are offering similar services to all of their customers, part of an effort to reduce the risks to clients living in fire danger zones.

Last month, insurers dispatched teams to protect more than 450 houses in Sonoma and Napa counties as wildfires ravaged the region, according to officials with four insurance companies that provide fire mitigation services.

Most were small crews trained to take emergency measures to reduce fire risk. These activities may be as simple as closing windows and doors left open during the residents’ frantic flight, pulling straw doormats or combustible patio furniture away from a house, or getting on the roof with a leaf-blower to clear away flammable leaves.

But it might also include wetting down a house and property, setting up sprinklers, dousing embers or applying fire-suppressant gels and foams during a fire.

Insurance providers say their crews are not private firefighters.

“We’re not there to combat a structure fire,” said Stephen Poux, global head of risk management services and loss prevention for American International Group’s Private Client Group. “We know what our boundaries are. We know what our limits are.”

AIG, which claims to insure roughly 40 percent of Forbes’ 400 richest Americans, pioneered the use of wildfire mitigation services in the wake of the 2003 Cedar fire, which destroyed 2,820 structures in San Diego County and killed 15 people. Available since 2005, the unit’s services are available only with certain ZIP codes in specific states that have both wildfire exposure and a concentration of wealthy clients.

“A lot of the properties we insure are remote, estate-type homes,” Poux said.

Similar programs available through premier insurance providers such as Chubb and Privilege Underwriters Reciprocal Exchange, or PURE. Some charge premiums as much as “a couple hundred thousand dollars,” depending how many homes a client insures and the complexity of their needs, Poux said. But it’s possible to get an entry-level policy for “a couple thousand dollars” that comes with complementary fire mitigation service, he said.

Such programs are increasingly available to the masses. The United Services Automobile Association, for example, now offers fire mitigation assistance to military personnel, veterans and their families who have homeowners coverage through USAA and reside in 15 wildfire-prone states.

“I think some of the other carriers do focus on high-end property, but ours is available for everyone,” USAA Communications Manager Richard Johnson said.

AIG employs only former firefighters and wildland firefighters to staff its Wildfire Protection Unit and provides regular training, tools and equipment to take emergency actions as a wildfire encroaches, Poux said.

Other companies provide fire protection services through third-party partners. Both Chubb and USAA use Wildfire Defense Services, for instance.

Much of the structure damage caused by Sonoma County wildfires, particularly within the perimeter of the 36,807-acre Tubbs fire, occurred within a matter of hours, leaving no time for fire mitigation crews to respond.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

But over the next week or more, particularly in areas of the Nuns fire that were threatened after the initial onslaught — in the White Oak Drive area of Oakmont, for instance, or north of Highway 12 from Glen Ellen, around Trinity and Cavedale roads — private crews tried to reduce the risk to homes still standing, to confirm the status of those in areas already burned, or to clean up in areas that the fire had gone through.

Cal Fire officials said only a handful of teams were involved, though some had 100 or more addresses to check, Cal Fire Operations Section Chief Steve Crawford said.

Much of their work occurs before fires break out. AIG’s Wildfire Protection Unit focuses largely on counseling clients on defensive strategies such as resilient landscaping and nonflammable building materials in advance of any specific threat of fire.

During visits to clients’ homes, they may offer advice about brush removal or defensive buffers that create space between structures and combustible vegetation or wood piles. Another key strategy is installation of ember- resistant vents that stop the kind of broadcast embers that were prevalent during October’s wind-driven firestorms, Poux said.

But their role changes when fires erupt. Cal Fire restricts their activities during active fires, employing rules to prevent private crews from interfering or distracting from the state’s firefighting mission.

But Cal Fire Battalion Chief Tony Brownell, who was part of the command structure in Sonoma County last month, said the restrictions are somewhat murkier than he would wish. Clear limits on the activities of private crews are important, he said.

“If they get in trouble, then we have to go in and save them,” Brownell said.

Fire mitigation teams are required to check in with incident commanders before entering a fire perimeter, complying with requirements for protective gear and documentation for each parcel they intend to visit.

In general, Cal Fire prohibits private firefighting crews from entering areas that are off-limits to the public. If an evacuation order is in place, private crews are supposed to be out of the area, too, agency spokesman Scott McLean said.

But there is a certain amount of negotiation that may occur, depending on the size of a fire perimeter, the area that is burning, the intensity of the flames and other factors, Crawford said. If an evacuation is under way, for instance, a private crew may be allowed to work until the deadline for residents to leave.

With the recent fires, “most of the time they were coming into places that the fire had already been or the fire wasn’t going to go to,” Crawford said. “I tell the guys that if they come and there’s issues with them, then I will basically kick all of the companies off a fire.”

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