ST. HELENA, California – Last October, firefighter Ryan Bellanca and his crew battled to keep the raging Glass Fire from devastating an upmarket Napa Valley vineyard.
But Bellanca wasn’t working 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 stepped in and detained the private firefighters for several hours, according to Bellanca and a sheriff’s office report. Bellanca said Cal Fire accused his crew of lighting dangerous backfires and failing to leave an evacuated area.
Bellanca denies lighting backfires — which consume fuel in a wildfire’s path — but admits his team failed to advise Cal Fire, the state’s 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 gone. Cal Fire wants it to be just them. If they can set precedent with kicking us out, then they can tell anybody to leave.”
The incident highlights how a booming business in private firefighting is creating friction with government firefighters as wildfires grow more frequent and dangerous across the western United States. It also underscores the inequity of who receives protection. Businesses and wealthy property owners have growing options to protect themselves, for a price. Meanwhile, homeowners across California are being denied homeowner’s insurance renewals because of wildfire risk.
California’s largest firefighting union calls the Glass Fire incident a cautionary tale and says it should be further investigated.
“When an evacuation order is given, you don’t question it. You get the hell out of there,” said Brian Rice, who represents more than 30,000 government firefighters as the president of California Professional Firefighters. “To us, private firefighters are one more group of civilians, who we need to know where they are. They’re a liability.”
Rice said he’s particularly worried about the training and equipment maintenance at smaller “mom and pop” operations that are not subject to clear regulation.
The Napa County District Attorney’s Office in December declined to press charges of unauthorized entry into an emergency area against Bellanca and a handful of other private firefighters who were detained. Assistant District Attorney Paul Gero said there was insufficient evidence that Cal Fire had asked the firefighters to leave, and that the Cal Fire report did not mention backfires. Cal Fire said it was still investigating the incident and declined further comment.
The controversy over private firefighting comes as a record 4.2 million acres burned last year in California amid heat waves and dry-lightning sieges. Climate scientists 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. Fire season has already started,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said on April 8, long before the typical summer fire season. Gavin said the state had already seen twice as many fires by early April as last year.
About 280 private companies are involved in preventing or fighting wildfires, up from 197 a decade ago, according to the National Wildfire Suppression Association, a trade group. Most of the firms work in the western United States, for clients including private landowners, insurers and government agencies. The trade group, however, only represents companies with government contracts, so the total number of private fire companies may be higher. Many focus on prevention work rather than fighting fires.
When they do battle blazes, private contractors run the risk of getting in the way or even accelerating a fire, state firefighters warn. That’s because the private groups are focused on saving a particular property rather than protecting entire communities.
Rice of the firefighters’ union pointed to an incident at California’s Point Reyes National Seashore last year 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. It said the two firefighters’ injuries served as a lesson to better prepare for the unexpected.
Representatives of private fire services companies say they work well with authorities.
“We don’t see that area of conflict,” said David Torgerson, the president of Montana-based Wildfire Defense Systems, which works for insurance companies and says it oversees the nation’s largest private wildfire service.
Burning holes in pockets
Private forestry companies provide a range of services from preventative tree trimming to traditional firefighting when blazes break out. Companies contacted by Reuters declined to disclose their rates.
A recent job advertisement seeking private firefighters in California offered pay of $13 to $15 per hour — far lower than the average of nearly $42 an hour for the state’s firefighters, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Bellanca, whose company has about 30 employees, confirmed that his company was protecting a vineyard during the Glass Fire but declined to name the owner.
A source with knowledge of the arrangement said Bellanca’s firm was protecting a property of Jackson Family Wines, which operates about 40 wineries around the world. One of them, Lokoya, is a few minutes’ drive up from where Bellanca and his crew were detained.
A spokeswoman for Jackson Family Wines, Galen McCorkle, said the company was “not involved in this investigation” but did not answer questions about whether Bellanca’s fire company was protecting its vineyard.
The Glass Fire burned 67,484 acres in the Napa and Sonoma regions and destroyed dozens of buildings, including the mansion-like Chateau Boswell winery and a farmhouse containing storage, bottling and fermentation facilities at the Tuscan castle-style Castello di Amorosa. Six months later, the smell of ash still floats among the charred trees that dot vineyard-covered hillsides.
Castello di Amorosa winery, a 175-acre property in Napa Valley, said that, after the fire, it invested some $100,000 in gear and equipment for a new fire-protection team, made up of eight employees.
The 2020 wildfires will cost the California wine industry about $3 billion through 2028 chiefly because of grapes that were destroyed or ruined by smoke, according to an estimate by Jon Moramarco, managing partner of alcohol industry consultancy bw166.
A Napa Valley wine industry executive predicted that demand for private firefighting will continue to increase because vineyards are struggling get strapped government crews onto their property.
Cal Fire did not respond to questions about whether it had enough firefighters to handle last year’s blazes.
California also saw a 31% increase in homeowners being dropped by their insurance from 2018 to 2019, mostly in areas with high wildfire risk, according to the California Department of Insurance. The state government has responded by ordering moratoriums on rejected renewals in certain wildfire-prone areas.
Wealthy homeowners can turn to insurance companies like PURE, which offers wildfire protection for homes that would cost more than $1 million to rebuild.
Texas-based private firefighter Ian Shelly, 45, can make up to $40,000 during a few months of fire season work 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 Aug. 31, Jones hopped into a truck and drove backwards to flee from a growing blaze, according to a Cal Fire report reviewed by Reuters.
A crew leader yelled “stop!” repeatedly over the radio to Jones, the report said. But the truck slid into the fire and Jones died, trapped in the vehicle. Shelly said his mother had been fighting fires for more than five years and had ample training. After her death, he said he agonized over whether to keep battling blazes.
“There were several times I was ready to wash my hands of fire entirely. But I know that mom wouldn’t want that,” said Shelly, a former mechanic who has four children. “This is what I do, this is what I know.”
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