Private firefighting services actually have a long history. The first private brigade was established in England in 1699 by the Hand in Hand Insurance Company, which recruited watermen from the Thames River to work as firefighters and porters who salvaged goods from insured homes, according to the U.K.'s Firefighter Foundation. The firefighters wore metal badges that bore the insurance company's emblem.
But private firefighting didn't spread across the Atlantic, according to Gary Urbanowicz, director of the New York City Fire Museum. Instead, in the colonies, citizens formed their own volunteer fire companies. "George Washington was a volunteer fireman down in Virginia," Urbanowicz explains in an interview. "If you look at the origins of organized firefighting in America in the 1730s, it was very much the citizenry helping to form the infrastructure of the government." Eventually, municipal fire departments with paid professional firefighters emerged as well.
But as wildfires in the western U.S. began to grow bigger, longer and more frequent over the past few decades, private firefighting companies began to emerge to assist in controlling them and protecting homes in endangered areas.
Chubb, one of the world's biggest insurance companies, began contracting with a private firefighting service more than 10 years ago, a Chubb spokesperson, says in an email. The coverage is offered as part of its homeowner policies to all single-family homeowners in 18 states that are prone to wildfires.
When a wildfire breaks out, the private firefighters may move in to take preventive measures, the spokesman says. They help to protect homes by clearing out combustible items such as wood piles and outdoor furniture, and seal vents to make sure that embers don't get into the home. Additionally, they bring along portable water tanks, known as snap tanks, or utilize the home's water lines, to hydrate the property and make it less flammable. They also may treat vegetation with a powder-base fire retardant, or even spray fire retardant on the home itself, the spokesman says.
Chubb's private firefighting services "are deployed to properties based on threat level and where our services can do the most good," he says. "Those actions are dictated by individual property, threat level, as well as current and projected conditions within a two mile radius of the property."
Other private firefighters actually work as government contractors. Greg Barker, co-owner of Spokane, Washington-based West Coast Wildfire LLC, says in an interview that his three-year-old outfit does all its work under contract from the U.S. Forest Service. The company primarily works in Region 6, which covers Washington state and Oregon.
The private firefighters generally are called in only after all of the local, state and government firefighting resources have been deployed and more help is needed, Barker says. The work usually comes in about a 60-day window from late July to September.