Fire crews for hire: Added protection during Fourmile blaze came at a price
Wildfire was first in Colo. fought partly by insurance company firefighters
By John Aguilar Camera Staff Writer
Posted: 09/20/2010 09:57:07 PM MDT
Among the more than 1,000 firefighters and 100 engines that responded to the Fourmile Fire, which broke out Sept. 6 in the foothills west of Boulder, was a contingent of 13 fully certified wildland firefighters whose mission it was to save a select group of homes.
They drove five fully equipped engines loaded with fire retardant up Sunshine Canyon Drive and Sugarloaf Road, easily passing through heavily manned checkpoints and down smoke-shrouded roads, to their customers' homes.
The homeowners getting the extra protection weren't secretly paying off local fire departments or federal officials for the special treatment. Rather, they were customers of Chubb, an insurance company that focuses on writing policies for high-end customers with high-value properties.
The New Jersey-based company has been offering Chubb Wildfire Defense Services for the past three years to its policyholders in 14 western states, including Colorado. The primary goal of the service, which is part of a homeowner's hazard insurance policy, is to help customers create defensible space and reduce fire danger around their home.
But if a wildfire should ignite and come within three miles of the home or prompt an evacuation from the area, Chubb will dispatch trained firefighters in certified wildland engines to the fire zone to protect customers' houses.
The Fourmile Fire, which destroyed 169 homes and caused an estimated $217 million in damage, is the first Colorado wildfire in which firefighters hired by an insurance company worked alongside the traditional assortment of local, state and federal emergency personnel.
Carole Walker, executive director of Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, expects the trend to grow.
"As the wildfire threat has grown across the country, you're seeing these types of added protections crop up," she said. "It's another example of what insurance companies are doing to market themselves in a competitive marketplace."
'Not a guarantee'
In the case of the Fourmile Fire, Chubb's proactive measures were only partly successful. Three policyholders lost their homes while at least 10 customers' homes -- located directly in the burn zone -- remain intact.
Company spokesman Dave Hilgen said the fire was so fierce and wind-driven on the first day that nobody was able to get control of it initially.
"It's an additional service that helps protect homes," he said. "But it's not a guarantee."
He said homes belonging to Chubb customers in other wildfire-prone states, like California, have been saved in past fires by company-hired personnel.