Judi Kannon and her husband had to drop everything and leave their home in Green Valley Highlands near Fairfield last week when the Atlas Fire ripped through her neighborhood. But the couple, both 72, had less to worry about than the tens of thousands of other North Bay residents who had to flee their homes because of the fires.
That’s because Kannon and her husband pay for a premium insurance plan in which a team of “fire specialists” came to their house this summer to advise them to cut back overgrown brush. Immediately after the fire, the private crews crossed police lines to enter their 5,000-square-foot, split-level home with outdoor cabana to spot-check the property, Kannon said.
Over the last week, the crews from the San Francisco-based PURE Insurance, which advertises that it caters to those with “high net worth income,” have also called and emailed just to check in. Plus, the insurance is paying for various companies to check the rooms, sniff for odors and conduct a “bio sweep” to get rid of any soot and freshen up their home.
“They have something that they do that makes the air smell cleaner,” said Kannon, an artist and therapy dog provider.
Once all that is done, the insurance crews will reimburse the couple for another company to come out and power wash the house.
Kannon said their roughly $10,000-a year premium insurance payment, which covers the couple’s home, cars and jewelry, is well worth it for peace of mind and protection of her home. The home owners insurance is just $6,000 of that, she said, for her house which is valued at a “few million dollars.” She and her husband, who works in the construction industry, feel the money is well spent, even as the Atlas Fire spared their home and wreaked havoc on others. “That’s what insurance is for,” she said. “For catastrophes.”
The Kannons are part of a relatively small group of affluent homeowners, many of whom relish their privacy, who have the ability to pay for Cadillac insurance plans. The insurance companies who provide these high-priced plans say they are happy to perform the extra fire-service protection because one home saved is one less expensive payout. Of course, the privatization of firefighting brings up some issues of fairness, but over time, Cal Fire and the insurance companies say they have learned to work together. On Thursday, California's insurance commissioner estimated that the insured losses topped $1 billion in Northern California, and most of those who lost everything had to wait in long lines and fill out thick stacks of paperwork in the long journey to make themselves whole again.
The insurance company that pioneered this niche market is the New York-based American International Group, which launched a Wildlfire Protection Unit, under its AIG Private Client Group, in 2005. The company only sells this type of insurance policy in certain California, Colorado, and Texas ZIP codes, explained Stephen Poux, the global head of risk management and loss prevention. The wildfire services are included for free in the plan. “We focus on high net worth individuals who like to live in disaster-prone areas,” he said. “As an insurer, we offer a suite of services to help our clients prepare and mitigate damages.”
He realizes AIG’s insurance plan is not within everyone’s reach. “GM offers a Cadillac,” he said, “and they offer a Chevy. We are the Cadillac.”
Ten years ago, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times both reported that customers could pay upwards of $10,000 for a set of insurance policies and that wildfire services were provided to 2,000 policy holders.
Poux declined to confirm that or say how much the policies cost a decade later, adding that there are a variety of factors involved, depending on the value of a home, yacht, cars and jewelry that someone owns. But Poux did say that his client base includes “40 percent of Forbes’ richest Americans.”
“Our business caters to a distinct population, the higher echelon,” he said.
What makes AIG’s wildfire protection stand out, Poux said, is that the company doesn’t farm out the work to third-party contractors: AIG employs experts and firefighters-turned-"mitigation-specialists" who have an average of five years in the public sector fighting wildland fires, and who have since left to work in the private sector.
So what do the experts do? Before a fire even breaks out, they help homeowners build with the best non-flammable materials and create landscapes with the best defensible space. And then when the fires actually break out, ground crews work alongside Cal Fire protecting customers’ properties. “We have fire engines with retardant foam and gel,” he explained.
After the Tubbs and Nuns fires in Sonoma and Napa counties last week, AIG crews cleared away downed trees with chain saws, cleaned out gutters and removed straw welcome mats. AIG even has a “wildfire intelligence center” in San Diego, where computers and experts monitor fire conditions near customers’ homes.
Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said he is aware of these private fire specialists and that his agency has no objection to them, especially if they can prepare their clients’ homes ahead of the fire by spraying them down with foam. “We have worked hard to ensure that these crews don’t impede our efforts nor are given special access above what the general public is given,” he said.
AIG is very strict about its confidentiality policy, and Poux wouldn’t disclose specifics about any particular firefighting efforts during the last two weeks, when, at one point, 22 wildfires raged through Northern California. All he would say is that he had “several hundred clients” in the wildfire zone, including some in the Santa Cruz mountains area, where the Bear Fire broke out late Sunday night. And despite AIG’s extra services and efforts, even the private firefighters couldn’t stop Mother Nature.
“Yes, some clients were impacted and lost their homes,” he said.
Other insurance companies are beginning to follow suit with insurance plans that are more affordable.
Ventura County-based Firebreak Protection Systems is a third-party contractor hired by several insurance companies that owner Kris Brandini did not want to disclose. As with the other insurance companies, his services are complimentary if customers buy an insurance package that includes wildfire protection.
But because his plan is less expensive to customers, Brandini hires “Wildland Red Card” certified employees — mostly young men and women training to become firefighters. They perform many of the pre-mitigation fire services and basic cleanup afterward and are authorized to actually fight wildfires, although they are not allowed to go inside and battle structure fires.
He said he had no clients in Northern California and was not dispatched to help out with the wine country fires, but was able to save 15 homes in Southern California, where his company was hired to pitch in after the Canyon 1 and 2 fires in Orange County.
Brandini, who once worked at AIG’s wildfire unit about ten years ago, is hoping that the wine country fires inspire more insurance companies to include wildfire protective services into their packages for everyone — from the affluent to the middle class. “Initially, this started as something for the elite,” he said. “But it’s been migrating down to someone who can own a four-door sedan.”