Private firms join fire fight

Seated behind the wheel of a fire engine, Dave Breglia follows a map dotted with expensive homes threatened by wildfires. His job: protect high-end real estate and save an insurance company millions of dollars.

“I never know where I'll go next or how long I'll be there,” said Breglia, a private contractor who was in Paradise, about 80 miles north of Sacramento. “But this season I bet I'll be on the road until October.”

Business is booming for private firefighting companies as drought and soaring temperatures combine to create one of the worst fire seasons in years across the West. Some contractors are even acquiring their own fire engines and flying helicopters.

But some fire officials question the reliance on private crews, raising doubts about their training and whether they could get in the way of government firefighters. Others are concerned that a trend toward privatization will give protection to the wealthy but leave other homeowners vulnerable to the flames.

“Life has to come first, then property,” said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “We know the number of private contractors is on the rise. If they communicate with us, they could be an asset. If not, they're a big liability.”

By Tuesday, most of the blazes started by a huge lightning storm more than three weeks ago had been extinguished, and some of the largest fires were nearing containment. Flames have blackened more than 1,300 square miles in places like Big Sur and other parts of California. About 100 homes have been destroyed and many others damaged.

“We've really turned a corner,” said Daniel Berlant, a state fire department spokesman. “But we have to remember this is just July, and our biggest fires are historically in September and October.”

State officials said 288 blazes were still active, most in the mountains ringing the northern edge of the Central Valley.

The explosive growth of private contractors concerns officials at the International Association of Fire Fighters, the union representing the vast majority of the nearly 300,000 publicly funded firefighters in the country.

“In a fire, if there are houses, there is higher risk,” said Lori Moore-Merrell, a researcher for the union. “We don't know much about the contractors' level of training. And fire protection should be available to all citizens regardless of how much money they have.”

Contractors say they often come from public firefighting backgrounds, where they were trained in the protocols of communication and command in a wildfire. And they say they are not in business to replace public firefighters.

“We know how the system works, and we do everything possible not to put anyone in harm's way,” said Ron Sparks, a contractor fresh off a seven-day stint protecting a home in Big Sur insured by the Fireman's Fund, one of several insurance carriers that hire private firefighting firms.

“We're out there to supplement the effort and protect property, not to be battling flames on the fire line,” Sparks added.