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Cal Fire investigating report of illegal backfires to defend property against Glass fire

Cal Fire is investigating reports of private citizens lighting backfires in an area impacted by the Glass fire, a prohibited and potentially dangerous activity for those not involved in the official firefight.

Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said his agency received reports of "backfires or something of that nature being put into play by individuals not assigned to the incident,” referring to official Glass fire operations.

He declined to say whether the investigation is in Napa or Sonoma counties.

But the allegation is incredibly serious because of the dangers posed by any fire, given hot and dry conditions and the risk it might take resources away from the primary firefight, McLean said.

“You just don’t arbitrarily put fire on the ground without notification. There’s so much danger to that,” McClean said. “There’s always reaction to that action, that’s how serious it is.”

Cal Fire officials wouldn’t say whether the report involved private firefighting crews hired to protect high-value properties in the Napa Valley, where vineyards cost up to $1 million an acre.

Private firefighting groups are becoming more commonplace, often hired by insurance companies trying to limit damage and financial losses. The contracted firefighters are also sometimes hired by wealthy landowners with means to do so, but some insurance companies are offering the service to its members more broadly.

During a fire emergency, McLean said private fire crews are still subject to evacuation orders and kept out like anyone else. There is an exception, however, for contractors going in to clear defensible space and "assist in making that structure is survivable.“

“They are not to be there as far as a firefighting force. They are not to put any fire on the ground,” McLean said. “Once they’ve taken care of that property, they come back out. They are not to stay and defend.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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