Firefighting’s hired guns
Contracted crews battle blazes, controversy
Since the third week of June, David Breglia has been a road warrior as well as a firefighter.
He drove his fire truck from Chico to smoke-filled Foresthill, near Auburn, and spent three days protecting homes threatened by the American River Complex fires—only to drive immediately after that to the equally smoky Napa area for a three-day stay to protect homes put in jeopardy by the Wild Fire.
Next came three days in Chico, while Breglia completed paperwork and readied his truck for his next call, which turned out to be a late-night zip down to Big Sur, where the Basin Complex fires, whipped by troublesome coastal winds, endangered an entire community. Because Breglia arrived so late, he had to sleep on a bedroll next to his truck, getting a few winks before an early-morning briefing.
After four work-filled days, Breglia drove back to Chico to regroup before being called down to the Gap Fire in Goleta, where “sundowner” winds of up to 50 mph caused the blaze to race through more than 5,000 acres of thick chaparral by the time he arrived.
Four workdays later (two of them 16 hours long), and having been alerted that the Basin fires were heading toward Carmel Valley, Breglia headed north again to the Big Sur area. Four days there, and Breglia was dispatched to smoke-blanketed Paradise, where the Butte Lightning Complex fires had been significantly worsened by a backfire gone wild.
Where will he go next? It’s up to the fickle flames of fate—and the call of insurance companies.
This fire season in California has the potential to be the biggest ever—it started earlier than usual, and unprecedented lightning storms (with a lack of rain) have wreaked flaming havoc on communities up and down the state. They’ve caused a massive headache of evacuations, property loss, health problems, stress and smoke.
Firefighters gear up for this time of year, when they put into action every bit of knowledge, experience, ardor and endurance they possess in service to the communities they passionately work to protect.
In Breglia’s case, there’s a slight distinction: He’s a wildland fire contractor, working with the newly established Chubb Insurance Wildfire Defense Service, often protecting high-end homes in exclusive canyon enclaves.
An element of controversy follows him as he performs what he views as simply the everyday duties of a firefighter. A blog on the Campaign for America’s Future site decried the rising trend as “a sickening indication about how the conservative mania for privatization is beginning to create two Americas: one that is protected from fires, and one that is not.”
Following last October’s wildfires in the San Diego area—in which sections of neighborhoods burned to the ground because of a lack of public resources, but a number of select houses were left standing because they were protected by a contractor mobilized by the homeowners’ insurance company—Sen. Dianne Feinstein declared: “It’s a terrible mistake to have to go to private firefighting.”
Wildfire management agencies, such as Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service, have used private crews since the 1980s. But it wasn’t until 2000 that enough contractors existed to form a trade group. Since then, contracted firefighting has increased dramatically, coinciding with a decline in funding for public firefighting services.
Some people feel that insurance-contracted firefighting is nothing more than a special favor for the very rich. Breglia disagrees—adding contractors to the mix increases protection for everyone, as their presence frees up public firefighters for other fire emergencies.
Breglia has been a firefighter for 22 of his 47 years. An exceedingly calm, hardy man who sports a sandy brown and gray beard, Breglia professes a strong passion for working with fire.
“If you don’t have a passion for what you do,” observed Breglia, his blue eyes twinkling, “you can’t be effective.”
He hails from the ruggedly beautiful upstate New York village of Paul Smiths in the Adirondack Mountains. Though he still maintains a New York driver’s license, increasingly he has found himself living in California.
“That’s where most of the fires are in the country,” Breglia points out. “California’s the place to be if you’re a wildland firefighter.”
Indeed, he is one of the increasing number of wildland fire contractors hired by city, state and federal agencies—and by private insurance companies—to help protect lives and property in the face of unprecedented numbers of wildfires coupled with increasingly strapped resources.
Besides being part of the trend, he’s at the forefront within that trend. The company he works for, Firestorm Wildland Fire Suppression, early in the year became the designated provider of contracted fire “pre-suppression” services in California for Chubb Insurance. (American Insurance Group is another company that contracts with private firefighting firms.)
Firestorm, located on Skypark Industrial Avenue in north Chico, near the Chico Municipal Airport, was founded in 1998 by present-day owner Jim Wills. He and his workforce of 140-plus are contracted to Lassen, Plumas and Shasta-Trinity National Forests—as well as to the National Park Service, and the bureaus of Land Management, Reclamation, and Indian Affairs—to perform firefighting services, vegetation management and hazard-fuel reduction.
Wills, 52, became a firefighter at age 17 when he was hired by the California Department of Forestry (since renamed Cal Fire) to fight fires in Butte County. His extensive résumé also includes working for the U.S. Forest Service from 1974 to 1990 as a member and foreman of the elite Hot Shot crew, as an engine captain, and in fire-prevention law enforcement, along with teaching fire science at Shasta College.
He started Firestorm when he “saw an opportunity to [fight fires] differently and better” than existing public agencies. It’s one of a handful of such firms in the state.
Breglia has worked for Wills as engine captain and training coordinator since 2005. He stayed in California for 11 months in 2007, and 2008 promises to keep him here at least as long.
He first came to the Golden State in 1987, while working for the state of New York, to help fight wildfires in Happy Camp. He was there for three weeks. He came back to California as a timber-falling contractor with the U.S. Forest Service, then worked as a firefighter and helicopter crew supervisor for the Bureau of Land Management.
With his firefighting experience, administrative skills and public-relations savvy, he’s a go-to guy for Firestorm for everything from quickly assessing a home’s fire risk to doing the occasional interview with The Associated Press. “I’m just the field guy who’s making it work,” Breglia said humbly.[page]
A typical day for Breglia these days involves a call on his cell phone from Wildfire Defense Systems. The Montana-based coordinating firm between Chubb and Firestorm, WDS mobilizes him to the latest California fire hot-spot in which Chubb-insured homes are located.
The call comes if the perimeter of a fire is within three miles of a home and has the potential of burning in that home’s direction, and/or if a mandatory evacuation order has been issued for that area. “We travel great distances as quickly as we can, within reason,” said Breglia, referring to himself and the firefighter who rides along with him. They often arrive at night.
The Firestorm crew reports to the Incident Command Post, which—with its tents, trailers, food vendors, generators and porta-potties—resembles a small tent city set up in the vicinity of the fire. “We make contact with the liaison officer, and do introductions with other fire personnel so that we can get to feel warm and cozy about each other,” Breglia said with a little smile.
He receives a copy of that day’s Incident Action Plan, which includes expected fire behavior, a weather forecast and a Radio Communications Plan that lists all the radio frequencies being used to monitor the fire and communicate with other firefighters and Incident Command.
“When you go to a fire, you have to abide by the rule book,” Breglia explained, referring to the thick, red Fireline Handbook and the smaller, yellow Incident Response Pocket Guide with which all “red-carded” firefighters (those who have state- and federally recognized certification) are very familiar.
Depending on fire conditions, once he’s programmed his radio he either heads to a designated house to begin work or goes to sleep for the night, either in a motel room or on a bedroll on the ground next to his fire truck. More often than not, he will get chance to sleep because fire calms down at night due to decreased winds and increased humidity. (Conversely, 2 p.m. is the time when fire behavior is generally at its most extreme).
Breglia will rise somewhere between 4:30 and 5:30 a.m. to go to the daily morning briefing, at which he will get that day’s IAP and discuss with others what happened with the fire during the night. Armed with necessary information, Breglia then drives to one of the homes he’s hired to protect.
This is sometimes a difficult task, since many of the high-end homes can be hard to find. With owners who fiercely protect their privacy, homes often are tucked away in hard-to-access canyons, have gated access only and have no identifying house number.
Once the home is located and the homeowner contacted, Breglia performs an assessment of fire risk based on numerous factors. They include types and locations of various “fuels” such as trees and brush on the property; the types of material the home is made of; defensible space (i.e. a fuel-free fire break surrounding the home); locations and sizes of water sources (such as swimming pools and hydrants); road access, and weather and fire conditions.
He makes extensive notes and takes photographs to be added to a database that Firestorm keeps on all of its Chubb clients for future reference, and to advise the homeowner on what changes need to be made to a home and property to make it safer from encroaching wildfire in the future.
If Breglia determines the house to be in jeopardy at any point during his watch, he and his partner will spray all wooden and glass surfaces with Thermo-Gel, a cutting-edge flame retardant. The gel provides considerably longer-lasting protection than previously used foam retardants—four to six hours in many cases instead of only 15 minutes. It also can be sprayed on grass around the home to create an instant fire line.
Breglia stays and monitors the situation until he determines that the home is out of danger.
If, after he has completed his work, he is asked by public firefighting personnel in the area to help suppress a fire, he may be contracted to firefight for them as well. During the Gap Fire in early July, while stationed at a farmhouse, he notified Incident Command of a “spot fire” 50 yards from another home; public firefighters responded, and that alert helped save the neighborhood.
Breglia and his fellow wildland fire contractors reject the term “private firefighter” for its close kinship to “mercenary.”
“We aren’t called ‘private firefighters,’ “ emphasized Breglia. “ ‘Private firefighter’ brings to mind someone who has no experience and wants to be a firefighter, and is not contracted to anyone and just goes to a home wearing a yellow Nomex shirt and green Nomex pants—which anyone can buy online from National Fire Fighter—and says, ‘I can protect your home for $2,000.’ “
Such untrained renegades appear on fires, trying to make a buck from people’s misfortune, and create problems for the legitimate, credentialed, private-sector firefighter who abides by the rules and regulations set up by state and federal agencies.
Firestorm either hires experienced firefighters or trains its own red-carded firefighters, whom it contracts out. The Chico firm maintains vehicles that are inspected by state and federal officials to ensure they meet government standards.
Breglia counters naysayers with information born of experience. On the argument that only the rich are protected by firefighters contracted by insurance companies, Breglia points out that, while many of the Chubb-insured properties are indeed multimillion-dollar homes, some are more modestly priced.
Scott Spencer, worldwide appraisal and loss-prevention manager for New Jersey-based Chubb, elaborated: “Our policy is for 13 Western fire-exposed states, and for every single policyholder, for homes from $50 million to $50,000.” Spencer did add, though, that most Chubb-insured homes tend to be quite expensive.
Breglia argues that any insurance company that pays for firefighting saves everyone money by offsetting losses. Besides, “after insurance companies have developed a reputation for ‘take, take, take,’ now they are finally giving back. They don’t charge their customers extra for this service.”
Public agencies, too, see an upside to firefighting’s private side. The U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service have been mandated to give 50 percent of their work to contractors, who typically pay their starting firefighters less than public agencies and comparable wages for veterans.
“It makes sense, because it saves an incredible amount of money,” Breglia said. “You don’t have to pay private contractors retirement or give them insurance, and you only have to use them when needed. Otherwise, you have to pay regular employees even when there is no fire.”
And so, Breglia matter-of-factly makes this assertion: “Contracting is going to be the future.”