Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Farmers Insurance Putting Firefighters Lives At Risk To Save Themselves Money?

Fire fighters unsure of insurers’ spray plan

By J.P. Crumrine, News Editor

Farmers Insurance Group has offered several Idyllwild customers an opportunity to join a pilot program it will conduct in the event a wildfire approaches the town, but federal and state firefighting officials are not enthusiastically embracing the idea. They have expressed concern that the insurance company’s gambit may ultimately put lives, especially firefighters’ lives, in jeopardy.

In a letter to several local customers, Farmers is asking their permission to apply a fire retardant (Phos-Check) on structures and nearby vegetation or landscaping. Farmers has an arrangement with Firebreak Spray Systems to treat properties within the proximity of an active wildfire.

Phos-Chek is a nontoxic, colorless fire retardant. Firebreak’s Web site claims it is “home and environmentally” friendly (

The effectiveness of the retardant is not being questioned. Fire officials are concerned about civilians entering areas where evacuation orders have been issued. Without communication between firefighters and independent retardant teams, officials are concerned about the safety of people if a fire’s status changes quickly and dramatically.

“As an incident commander, one of the more important issues is the safety of the people working for you,” stressed Dave Fiorella, San Jacinto Ranger District fire chief.

In August, the International Fire Chiefs Association (IFCA) adopted the position that homeowners must first create defensible space around their dwellings and then retrofit homes to contemporary building and safety standards. They stressed that these measures have proven to be highly effective protection during wildland fires.

“Private fire-protection resources engaged to prepare homes threatened by wildland fires must adhere to evacuation orders if and when issued,” the IFCA continued.

Mike Dietrich, San Bernardino National Forest fire chief, observed a situation this summer while he was incident commander of the Basin Fire. The fire retardant company’s vehicles look similar to fire engines and pass through roadblocks, yet they have no radio communication with the fire base station.

The professionals fear that these private resources may become trapped within the fire zone. Then firefighters must take time and effort to extract them. This puts the firefighting resources at risk, too.

“This is a major issue of accountability,” said John Hawkins, Riverside County fire chief and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection unit chief. “People are inside a combat zone without proper training.”

There are plenty of examples of firefighters being injured or dying trying to save or extricate civilians. In 1996, a panicked civilian abandoned and locked his vehicle. The vehicle blocked an escape route, resulting in the death of three firefighters, Hawkins noted.

“While we can prevent people from entering an evacuated area, these guys drive up looking just like fire apparatus,” said Hawkins, speaking from experience at this year’s Vail Fire. “They have red lights and get through the road blocks.”

While the gel that homeowners can apply before a fire has proven to be a beneficial form of protection, it is creating a similar danger for people, Dietrich said.

“Gel is becoming a substitute for abatement and defensible space,” he said after the Basin Fire. “And residents are afraid to leave their homes.”

Gel requires water after 24 to 48 hours in the open. Dietrich has seen homeowners refuse to evacuate in front of a fire so that they can stay and refresh their gel. He has even observed elected county officials recommending the authorization to re-supply gel during a mandatory evacuation.

Farmers Insurance is not the only insurer attempting to protect its assets this way. But as its letters begin to appear in Idyllwild mailboxes, this issue has received statewide notoriety. The IAFC acted in August. Shortly, both the California Fire Chiefs and CalFire will discuss and evaluate this policy, Hawkins added.

With respect to retrofitting existing homes, Dietrich reported that San Bernardino County supervisors have revised an ordinance requiring replacing cedar shake shingles with fire-resistant shingles when a house is sold.

On the advice of local Realtors, the ordinance will not require immediate replacement but all roofs must have fire-resistant shingles by 2014.

Marge Muir, Pine Cove and local Realtor, said some Hill insurance companies, including State Farm, are requiring replacing wood shingles before escrow closes in order to obtain home insurance.

Farmers Insurance Group media staff did not return a phone call about this issue.




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