Private firefighting companies are increasing tension while saving vineyards and homes from wildfires

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Last October, firefighter Ryan Bellanca and his crew fought to stop the raging glass fire in California from devastating an upscale Napa Valley vineyard.

But Bellanca didn’t work for any fire department. He owns a private company that had been hired to protect the vineyard. Authorities from Cal Fire and the Napa County Sheriff’s Office eventually intervened and detained the private firefighters for several hours, according to Bellanca and a report from the Sheriff’s Office. Bellanca said Cal Fire accused his crew of igniting dangerous backfires and not leaving an evacuated area.

Bellanca denies igniting backfire – which burns fuel on the way to a wildfire – but admits her team did not notify Cal Fire, the state fire agency, that it was in the evacuated area, as required by law.

“It was the fog of war,” said Bellanca, CEO and owner of Bella Wildfire & Forestry. “But we saved an entire mountain that Cal Fire thought was missing. Cal Fire wants it to be just them. If they can set a precedent by kicking us out, they can tell anyone to leave. “

The incident shows how a booming private firefighting activity is creating friction with government firefighters as wildfires become increasingly frequent and dangerous in the western United States. It also underscores the inequity of who benefits from protection. There are more and more options for businesses and property owners to protect themselves, at a cost. Meanwhile, homeowners across California are being denied home insurance renewals due to the risk of wildfire.

California’s largest firefighters union calls the Glass Fire incident a cautionary tale and says it should be investigated further.

“When an evacuation order is given, you don’t question it. You’re doing well, ”said Brian Rice, who represents more than 30,000 government firefighters as president of California Professional Firefighters. “For us, the private firefighters are one more group of civilians, who we need to know where they are. It is a handicap.

Rice said he was particularly concerned about training and maintaining equipment in small “mom and dad” operations that are not subject to clear regulations.

In December, the Napa District Attorney’s Office refused to press charges of unauthorized entry into an emergency area against Bellanca and a handful of other detained private firefighters. Assistant District Attorney Paul Gero said there was not enough evidence Cal Fire had asked firefighters to leave and that Cal Fire’s report did not mention the flashbacks. Cal Fire said he was still investigating the incident and declined to comment further.

The private firefighting controversy comes as a record 4.2 million acres burned last year in California amid heat waves and dry sieges with lightning strikes. Climatologists blame global warming for the increasingly flammable landscape. Expecting the worst this summer, after an unusually dry winter, the state is investing $ 536 million to improve fire protection and hire nearly 1,400 additional firefighters.

“Let’s be realistic. The fire season has already started, ”Governor Gavin Newsom said on April 8, well ahead of the typical summer fire season. Gavin said the state had already seen twice as many fires in early April as it had last year.

About 280 private companies are involved in preventing or fighting forest fires, up from 197 a decade ago, according to the National Wildfire Suppression Association, a trade group. Most companies work in the western United States, for clients including private landowners, insurers and government agencies. The trade group, however, only represents companies with contracts with the government, so the total number of private fire companies may be higher. Many focus on prevention work rather than fighting fires.

When fighting flames, private contractors run the risk of interfering with or even accelerating a fire, state firefighters warn. This is because private groups focus on saving a particular property rather than protecting entire communities.

Rice of the Firefighters Union reported an incident last year in Point Reyes National Seashore, Calif., In which two private firefighters were injured by debris from a burning tree. Rice said a professional firefighter would have known not to enter the area. The National Park Service, which manages Point Reyes, said it frequently contracts with private crews to help fight wildfires when government crews are insufficient. He said the injuries to the two firefighters served as a lesson to better prepare for the unexpected.

Representatives of private fire service companies say they work well with authorities.

“We don’t see this conflict zone,” said David Torgerson, president of Montana-based Wildfire Defense Systems, which works for insurance companies and says he oversees the largest private firefighting service. of the country’s forest.

BURN HOLES IN POCKETS

Private forestry companies offer a range of services ranging from preventive cutting of trees to traditional firefighting in the event of a fire. Companies contacted by Reuters declined to disclose their prices.

A recent job posting looking for private firefighters in California offered wages of $ 13 to $ 15 an hour – well below the nearly $ 42 an hour average for state firefighters, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Bellanca, whose company has around 30 employees, confirmed her company was protecting a vineyard during the glass fire, but declined to name the owner.

A source familiar with the arrangement said the Reuters company Bellanca was protecting a property of Jackson Family Wines, which operates around 40 wineries around the world. One of them, Lokoya, is a short drive from where Bellanca and her crew were held.

Jackson Family Wines spokeswoman Galen McCorkle said the company was “not involved in this investigation” but did not answer questions on whether the Bellanca fire company was protecting its vineyard.

The glass fire burned 67,484 acres in the Napa and Sonoma areas and destroyed dozens of buildings, including the Chateau Boswell winery and a farm containing storage, bottling and fermentation facilities in the Chateau de Tuscan style Castello di Amorosa. Six months later, the smell of ash still floats among the charred trees that dot the vine-covered hillsides.

The Castello di Amorosa winery, a 175-acre property in Napa Valley, said after the fire it invested some $ 100,000 in equipment and gear for a new fire protection team, made up of eight employees. .

The 2020 wildfires will cost the California wine industry around $ 3 billion through 2028, mostly from grapes destroyed or ruined by smoke, according to an estimate by Jon Moramarco, managing partner of the industry consulting firm. alcohol bw166.

A Napa Valley wine industry executive predicted that demand for private firefighting would continue to rise because wineries struggle to get government crews strapped to their property.

Cal Fire did not respond to questions about whether it had enough firefighters to handle last year’s fires.

California also saw a 31% increase in the number of homeowners who lost their insurance from 2018 to 2019, mostly in areas at high risk for wildfires, according to the California Department of Insurance. The state government responded by ordering moratoriums on rejected renewals in some areas prone to wildfires.

Wealthy homeowners can turn to insurance companies like PURE, which offer wildfire protection for homes costing more than a million dollars to rebuild.

GO WEST

Texas-based private firefighter Ian Shelly, 45, can make up to $ 40,000 for a few months of work during fire season in the west. But disaster struck last summer, when he and his 63-year-old mother, Diana Jones, were hired by an Oregon-based firefighting company.

In the Mendocino National Forest on August 31, Jones jumped into a truck and backed away from a growing fire, according to a Cal Fire report reviewed by Reuters.

A crew chief shouted “stop!” repeatedly radioed to Jones, according to the report. But the truck slipped into the fire and Jones died, trapped in the vehicle. Shelly said her mother had been fighting fires for more than five years and had sufficient training. After his death, he said he wondered whether to continue fighting the flames.

“Several times I was ready to wash my hands completely of the fire. But I know mom wouldn’t want that, ”said Shelly, a former mechanic who has four children. “This is what I do, this is what I know.”

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; editing by Donna Bryson and Brian Thevenot)

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