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Wildfire Response Complicated by Wildcat Firefighters

CPF works to restrict private crews masquerading as first responders

When a strike team of firefighters from Sonoma Valley were mobilized against the deadly North Bay Fires in the fall of 2017, they were dispatched from incident command to protect the city of Sonoma. Already staring down a disaster of epic proportions, they found themselves confronting a risk they didn’t expect: private "firefighters" operating without authorization well inside the fire perimeter.

“It’s like ‘Who are you? Why didn’t you check in?’” Sonoma Valley Battalion Chief Spencer Andreis told NBC News. “They don’t check in with us, and they come and go as they please.”

Private firefighters have been steadily seeking inroads into California. Many are out-of-state contractors hired by insurance companies to protect select ratepayer properties – often for a hefty additional cost. Others are true “wildcat” teams – hired by wealthy individuals to protect their homes. No matter who hires them, these teams pose a safety risk to firefighters, a liability risk to fire departments and potentially complicate public safety response at times of crisis.

“These private crews don’t relieve the burden on first responders – they actually make things worse,” said CPF President Brian K. Rice. “Now, in addition to having to keep watch for lives and property of citizens, they’re also responsible for the private crews working inside the fire zone.”

The issue of private firefighters gained publicity during the recent Woolsey Fire after celebrities Kim Kardashian and Kanye West hired a private crew to save their home. As in the Sonoma Valley case, the crew operated on its own, outside of incident command.

Because they are usually either self-deployed or hired by outside firms, private fire crews are often staffed either by retired firefighters or individuals seeking to become firefighters. Even the most reputable of the teams are trained only to federal wildland firefighting standards, well below the standards for any California firefighter – professional or volunteer.

In addition to the safety and training concerns, these privateers also complicate evacuation and disaster response. Often these crews operate in vehicles that mirror those of first responders, which gets them “behind the lines”. Citizens seeing these vehicles may have a false sense of hope that they will get help, only to see they scurry away to protect their client’s home.

Insurers and others promoting private firefighting insist their mission is entirely preventive, and they respect the orders of incident command. But with so many stories of violation, CPF has worked in Sacramento to keep these crews from being an impediment to disaster response. Assembly Bill 2380, signed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, placed into law guidelines for private firefighter response established by FIRESCOPE in 2012. These restrictions include:

  • Strict limits on private fire crews to only preventive activities – not direct response

  • Mandatory evacuation when ordered

  • Mandatory check-in at Incident Command

  • Vehicles, logos and uniforms cannot resemble or imitate those of public agency firefighters

The legislation took effect January 1, 2019, but the issue remains on CPF’s radar for future legislation, if needed. “Public safety is not a for-profit operation,” said President Rice.