Last fall’s devastating California firestorms gripped the nation’s attention as flames engulfed whole communities, North and South. For Greenwich residents, the loss of life and wholesale destruction that played across our TV and laptop screens seemed otherworldly—almost unbelievable. Hundreds of thousands of residents displaced. Thousands of homes destroyed. In a year that brought an ample share of natural disasters (including Hurricanes Michael and Florence), to many luxury market homeowners, this one was particularly distressing. It’s hard not to relate to our own homes and their irreplaceable contents—and to wonder if there isn’t anything wildfire-aware homeowners could have done to prevent such devastating losses.
In fact, at year’s end, The Wall Street Journal posted a video that explored a little-known service that exists to address that concern: private firefighters.
It turns out that some homeowners insurance companies who cover the mansions most exposed to wildfires contract with private companies to protect their investment. One such company is Capstone Fire & Safety Management. The Journal sent a reporter to ride along with a Capstone private firefighting unit as they visited Ventura County properties threatened in last November’s maelstrom. For the “pricey mansions” covered by their risk mitigation service, they assessed the oncoming danger and responded accordingly. That meant anything from simply checking in with homeowners to moving flammable objects away from structures. In extreme situations, they were prepared to spray fire-retardant foam on exposed areas.
In action, the service is limited in significant ways. Private personnel must keep in touch with their public counterparts to guarantee they do not slow down public firefighting efforts. In fact, private firefighters cannot enter any area that’s under an evacuation order. Even so, the service is not without controversy. “It does not seem fair,” one observer says, “that a wealthy person’s home could be saved over a lower-income person’s…”
The Journal’s report leaves that question unresolved—except for a spokesman’s closing observation. “In catastrophic situations,” he says, “I think the Capstone guys will do the right thing.” Since most of their personnel are retired from public departments, that seems likely.
The real lesson here: You don’t have to live in wildfire country to recognize that the cost of sufficient homeowners insurance is critical to every single homeowner.