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Monday, Aug 15, 2022
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Private Firefighters

Chris Dunn, chief executive of security training firm Covered 6 in Simi Valley, is scaling up his company’s fire suppression team – currently a squad of five – into a full-time private fire department with multiple fire trucks available to protect homes and businesses.He believes the firefighting industry will increasingly rely on the private sector as California wildfires get more frequent and intense.“This is an emerging market,” he said. “Insurance companies have been doing it for years to protect their own assets. We’re a little different because we’re hired directly by the clients to protect themselves.”Individual home and business owners in high-risk areas have begun hiring Covered 6 for brush clearance, preventative applications of environmentally friendly flame retardant spray and fire suppression if a blaze threatens a property.He said Covered 6’s clientele includes “a half dozen very high net worth individuals,” some estates, a school and even a city located in Los Angeles County that needed support with evacuation services and spot fire suppression.  Fire protection through Covered 6 costs “about double what it would cost to get a security guard,” Dunn told the Business Journal.He said the shift towards private solutions is driven by an increasing difficulty for homeowners in Southern California to find insurance coverage that includes structure protection. Affording such coverage is a whole other barrier.“People are going on their own,” he said. “We’re getting calls left and right to come help people because there’s just no protection.”Public fire departments, he added, were never meant to fight for individual properties in a wildfire context. “They have to fight a bigger picture. They do try to save as many homes as possible, and they’re amazing at it, but if they have to move on because there are people in danger, structures are secondary.” Hot seatThe California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection last month reported that wildfires have scorched more than 4 million acres of California land this year – an area roughly the size of Connecticut – more than doubling the former national record just halfway through October with much of fire season still to come.In Northern Los Angeles County this fall, the Lake Fire burned roughly 20,000 acres and damaged dozens of structures near Lancaster and Castaic, while the Bobcat Fire forced evacuations throughout Lancaster and Palmdale and sent thick plumes of smoke billowing south into the Valley and L.A. basin for days. According to Debbie Miley, executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association in Oregon, private firefighting companies fall into two categories: those that provide structural protection for private homeowners either directly or through insurance policies; and those that contract with state agencies and the national forest service to battle blazes in the wildlands. There can be some overlap, but Miley’s trade association represents the latter sort of business.That includes private vendors who supply water, trucks, hoses, bulldozers, helicopters and personnel to assist state and federal crews not just with suppression, but forest management and restoration services too.One such vendor is Goldenflow Equipment, a family-owned operation out of Castaic. Run by husband-wife duo Scott and Carissa Small, Goldenflow owns one water tending truck, which transports and stores water at a fire scene, and one weed wash unit, which uses power washers to spray weeds and seeds off of equipment and vehicles, preventing the spread of invasive plant species when firefighters return home. This equipment isn’t set up at the fire line, but back at a base camp to support those on the front lines. Scott Small spoke with the Business Journal from Oregon, where he and his employees have been stationed for the last 36 days helping firefighters drown out blazes under a three-year contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.“The first assignment I got was on the Dam Fire (in Angeles National Forest). It was a weed wash. My second fire was the Apple Fire (south of Big Bear in the San Bernardino National Forest), and that was a weed wash. Then I got called to the Dolan Fire with my water tender, up in Big Sur,” Small said.Scott Small, who served 17 years as a firefighter with the Forest Service, said this is his first full fire season since transitioning to the private sector. He plans to grow his equipment inventory to include portable toilets, handwashing trailers, gray water trucks and even a mobile laundry unit, creating a full-service emergency response service for any natural disaster, not just fires. Partnering with contractors like Goldenflow isn’t a new practice for the Forest Service or other fire response agencies, NWSA’s Miley said. Her association has been around for 30-odd years, and the federal government in 2002 established a nationwide template for agencies to solicit fire resources from the private sector. She said contributions from private companies tend to ebb and flow based on the severity of wildfires year to year. “We see an influx of people after a bad fire season,” she said. She added the industry has seen an uptick in the utilization of private industry resources in California in recent years.“That doesn’t mean the industry is growing, but … 10 to 15 years ago, very rarely did private industry get dispatched from out of the area into California,” she noted.She said she believes the increase is simply due to wider awareness of what the private sector has to offer.  Despite the growing demand, Miley said private firefighting is a fickle business. “Profit margins are very small because of the competitive nature of the contracts,” she explained. “You have to be an astute businessperson during the years when fire season isn’t as active.”She said it can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to round up resources and prepare a trained crew for fire season – a difficult spend when it’s impossible to predict fire activity in a given year. “It’s a risky business with no guarantees.” Dunn said the five fire suppression personnel on his payroll recently earned their Wildland Firefighting – Type II certificates, which grant Covered 6 access to communicate with regional command centers and offer a helping hand in wildland fire suppression if determined necessary by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.His team currently services Southern California, but he said he’d like to expand to include Northern California and possibly beyond. Diverse applicationsDunn added Covered 6’s fire response team is good for more than just wildfire suppression – he said he was surprised to receive calls from cities looking for help managing civil unrest, mainly by putting out trash can or dumpster fires.He’s also been tapped by a production crew to be on site as a preventative measure during the filming of a commercial out in the desert. Finally, Covered 6 can act as an equipment vendor, supplying pool pumps, water tanks and fire retardants to customers who want to protect their property themselves. “We’ll never be able to be everywhere. Your best bet is to be self-reliant. … All these things we have to start doing for ourselves,” he said. In looking ahead, he added he would like to set up a fire response training program similar to those his company offers in security, first response and self-defense. “As this grows as an industry, there isn’t a lot of schooling. We’re already set up with that,” he said.

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