- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

BIG SUR, Calif. | Seated behind the wheel of a fire engine, Dave Breglia follows a map dotted with expensive homes threatened by wildfires. His job - protect high-end real estate and save an insurance company millions of dollars.

“I never know where I’ll go next or how long I’ll be there,” said Mr. Breglia, a private contractor who was in Paradise, about 80 miles north of Sacramento. “But this season I bet I’ll be on the road until October.”

Business is booming for private firefighting companies as drought and soaring temperatures combine to create one of the worst fire seasons in years across the West. Some contractors are even acquiring their own fire engines and flying helicopters.

But some fire officials question the reliance on private crews, raising doubts about their training and whether they could get in the way of government firefighters.

Others are concerned that a trend toward privatization will give protection to the wealthy, but leave other homeowners vulnerable to flames.

“Life has to come first, then property,” said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We know the number of private contractors is on the rise. If they communicate with us, they could be an asset. If not, they’re a big liability.”

By Tuesday, most of the blazes started by a huge lightning storm more than three weeks ago had been extinguished, and some of the largest fires were nearing containment. Flames have blackened more than 1,300 square miles in places like Big Sur and other parts of California.

About 100 homes have been destroyed and many others damaged.

“We’ve really turned a corner,” said Daniel Berlant, a state fire department spokesman. “But we have to remember this is just July, and our biggest fires are historically in September and October.”

State officials said 288 blazes were still active, most in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.

The move toward private fire crews is in some ways a throwback to an earlier era, when homeowners in colonial times joined together to form “fire clubs” that protected members’ homes. Early fire departments often were supported by insurance companies that had a vested interest in preventing disaster.

In modern times, timber and oil companies have used private firefighters for years, but now insurers concerned about the high cost of home replacement are hiring private contractors, too.

New Jersey-based Chubb Corp., which employs Mr. Breglia, began offering free fire protection to its clients in 13 Western states in March. Already 11,000 homeowners have signed up, more than a third of those in wealthy and fire-prone enclaves like Lake Tahoe and Marin County.

The company plans to expand the service to other states before the start of next fire season.

Chubb hired Montana-based Wildfire Defense Systems Inc. to protect homes with a replacement value of $1 million or more. The company is now subcontracting a pool of 50 fire engines throughout the West dedicated exclusively to Chubb policyholders.

Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co. donated $18 million over four years to support public fire departments. But this year it jumped into the private firefighting business, too, joining with Sacramento-based Fire Stop and two Southern California companies.

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