July 22--While the Possum Kingdom and Bastrop wildfires raged last year, firefighter Ken Josselyn didn't attack the blazes. He went into the evacuation zones to move firewood away from homes, clear decks of patio furniture, remove propane grills, and close windows and doors left open by harried homeowners.
Josselyn and a teammate made whirlwind stops last year at scores of high-end homes and pretreated about two dozen with fire retardant. None were lost to the flames in either fire.
"We were doing what we could to help the homes' survivability," said Josselyn, a federally certified firefighter based in Aspen, Colo.
Hundreds of local, state and federal firefighters battled the Texas blazes, but Josselyn is part of a growing new breed, a private firefighter employed by an insurance company. They respond to fires but spend most of their time educating homeowners on ways to minimize their risks before the first spark flies.
The practice is gaining momentum across Texas and other fire-prone Western states as insurers try to limit potentially huge losses.
And in the last two years, the losses in Texas and Colorado alone have been staggering.
The Texas fires destroyed 2,909 homes and caused nearly $600 million in damage, including $360 million in Bastrop and $100 million at Possum Kingdom, said Mark Hanna of the Insurance Council of Texas.
In Colorado, payouts to the victims of the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires are expected to top $450 million, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
"It's a huge loss-mitigation effort is what it is. The insurance companies have a huge stake in this," Hanna said.
In the wake of the 2011 Texas fires, Chartis Private Client Group, the New York-based specialty insurer of luxury homes that dispatched Josselyn and other firefighters to Texas, is permanently positioning wildfire mitigation specialists in the state, said Dorothy Sarna, senior vice president of risk management services for the group.
Starting this month, the Chartis service, which is complimentary to enrolled policy holders, is available in select ZIP codes around Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.
The Wildfire Protection Unit for "high-net-worth homes" was launched in 2005, when Chartis realized that "our clients like to live in places that are very vulnerable, whether it's in California, Colorado or Texas. They tend to have larger properties in remote areas that are more vulnerable than urban areas," Sarna said.
"We weren't officially in Texas last summer, but we spent enough time there to realize it was time for us to be there. It's very, very vulnerable and we have a lot of policy holders, so we needed employees in Texas to provide response," she said, noting that about 12,000 homes are enrolled in the program nationwide.
"Typically, we have homeowners that have a primary home of $1 million or more. However, a lot of the homes that are most vulnerable are second homes in places like Aspen," Sarna said.
An Austin-based team will join other Chartis groups in Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Calif., San Francisco and Colorado. Additional Texas crews will be added as customers enroll in the program, Sarna said.
Jansen Fine, a former Texas Forest Service firefighter who battled blazes all over the state last year, and Sierra Durland, a former U.S. Forest Service firefighter in Montana, were in California last week training and will begin meeting with Texas homeowners this week, Fine said.
Chartis is the only company that employs its own teams, Sarna said, but firms like Wildland Defense Systems of Red Lodge, Mont., provide similar services to other insurers.
Wildland Defense Systems, which has been working with insurers since 2008, has 50 engines and 100 federally certified firefighters positioned in 14 states, including Texas, said company President David Torgeson, adding that not all of the insurers are "high-end providers."
"We move engines and crews around depending on where the fire season is. Primarily what we do is wildfire education, but we are a qualified suppression contractor," he said.
In the fire business, the best prevention is education, Josselyn said.
"Most of what we do to truly prevent a house from burning down is well before a fire, in anticipation of the fire," he said. "We meet with our clients to try to get them to see their property in a different light. We try to educate them about how a fire would work through their property and how to best protect their home and create a situation where the home might stand alone without having to have an engine sitting in their driveway."
When a blaze breaks out, Chartis works with RedZone, a San Diego firm that provides up-to-the-minute mapping of a fire's advance along with client locations. The teams can access the intelligence from laptops in their fire engines, Sarna said.
That information allows crews to better anticipate fire behavior, she said, but it is also utilized for other disasters.
"When we had 12 tornadoes hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area on April 3, we knew exactly where the tornadoes touched down and where the Chartis policy holders were," Sarna said. During fires, the company dispatches a veteran wildfire manager to act as a liaison with the incident command to smooth access for its teams, said James Rappuhn, a Chartis firefighter in California who also worked in Texas last year.
"We were very much welcomed in Texas by the commands," he said.
Crews then do a "hot lap" of each site to make sure no one is home, then they start clearing away fire hazards and spray areas of concern with fire retardant, Rappuhn said.
Last year, none of the Texas clients had done advance work.
"The homeowners weren't following fire-wise practices," Rappuhn said.
That convinced Chartis that it was time to expand the program into Texas, Sarna said.
"We have invested quite a bit in this with staff and state-of-the-art equipment, but from my perspective -- not counting saving a home during an event -- we're in a position to save hundreds or perhaps thousands of homes through the education and consultation process."
Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981
(c)2012 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
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