When wildfires threaten
Chubb's free service aims to protect homes
By Phil Zinkewicz
They could be the result of a carelessly tossed cigarette or a campfire that has not been extinguished. Or they could arise from an outdoor spring cleanup as home owners burn last winter’s dead leaves and fallen branches.
Whatever the source, each year wildfires cause significant property damage and threaten the lives and safety of individuals who live in their path. But while wildfires may be an inevitable part of life, it is not necessarily inevitable that they bring about destruction of people’s homes.
Last year, The Chubb Group of Insurance Companies established what it claims to be “the nation’s largest private wildfire protection network.” The program was inaugurated just in time for the 2008 wildfire season. To provide this service to its homeowners insureds, the carrier entered into an agreement with Wildfire Defense Systems, Inc. (WDS), a Montana-based firm that operates under a federal contract for wildfire suppression in the Western United States. The service is available in 13 states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
“WDS offers a network of highly trained, certified wildfire fighters,” says Kevin Fuhriman, western zone catastrophe manager for Chubb Personal Insurance. “Our customers now can have peace of mind knowing that they can be protected by the very same people and equipment that fight forest fires for the government and by the very best retardant available. This retardant is called Thermo-Gel 200L, a highly effective fire-blocking gel that is U.S. Forest Service-approved and environmentally friendly. The gel is produced by Thermo Technologies, LLC, of Bismarck, North Dakota.”
Fuhriman emphasizes, however, that the service is not a substitution for proper mitigation on the owner’s behalf, such as removing flammables from rooftops and around the property and creating a defensible space. In addition, Chubb and WDS are not first responders, as local fire officials will be on scene and will probably be the first to the fire. “We are an added layer of response and protection and will operate under their jurisdiction,” Fuhriman says.
There is no charge for this service, according to Fuhriman. “Chubb home owners need only fill out an enrollment form that is available either from Chubb’s Web site or their local agent or broker,” he says. “Customers who do not enroll can be reimbursed up to $5,000 for other services they retain to help protect their homes when a wildfire is within three miles of their home or a civil authority initiates an evacuation order as the result of an approaching wildfire.”
Fuhriman adds that Chubb cannot guarantee that it will be able to respond to all enrolled home owners during a wildfire event because of changing conditions and available resources.
Last year, when wildfires threatened policyholders’ homes in northern California and Montana, Chubb’s WDS saved dozens of homes in those regions. When a spot fire broke out 100 yards from one policyholder’s property, the service contacted unified incident command, which responded by creating a fire line with two bulldozers and attacking the spot fire with fire engines. Chubb’s WDS personnel then applied the fire-blocking gel to the policyholder’s house. The combined actions resulted in saving not only the multimillion-dollar home and surrounding farm but an entire block of properties.
“The Chubb team and the local fire department were single-handedly responsible for saving my home,” said Christi Sulzbach, who lives on the 50-acre organic farm in Goleta, California. When Sulzbach was finally able to return to her home, she was happy that the fire-blocking gel that was used to protect the house had been cleaned up.
Just hours later, a separate fire threatened the home of two doctors in Billings, Montana. WDS arrived at the house in the wee hours of the morning, quickly assessed the situation and established a property perimeter sprinkler system to prevent the fire from reaching the structure.
“The fire was just one-quarter of a mile from our home,” said Bonnie Dean. “They mobilized two firefighters and a truck and put a sprinkler system into place and were ready to apply fire-blocking gel if needed. If the wind had shifted, we would have needed to activate the system. We also learned a lot about what we need to do to better secure our home from any future wildfire risk.”
Says Fuhriman, “WDS monitors wildfires on Chubb’s behalf when its insureds might be in harm’s way. They are our connection to wildfires and the firefighting world. Through WDS, we have access to 50 engines—all government certified.”
Fuhriman says that wildfire season typically follows a well-documented path, usually starting in the Midwest. “We know when wildfires start and what paths they take. The whole thing starts with a phone call to a client to let that client know that a wildfire might be approaching. Then we tell them what they can do—remove all combustibles, for example. Then the WDS people will create a safety zone. Most homes burn down because of ember intrusion. Applying the gel is the last resort. We responded to more than 200 properties last fire season. Only two or three were gelled,” he says.
“During the parts of the year when there are no fires, people from the WDS team visit with Chubb policyholders who are enrolled in the program,” Fuhriman continues. “They’ll do an assessment of the property to determine where the water resources are and what vegetation exists around the property. When a fire threatens, the WDS team already has the necessary information available. We also coordinate our firefighting activities with local firefighters, to keep them abreast of what we are doing.”
Kim Davies, client service executive for HUB International in Colorado says, “We think what Chubb is offering is great, but we have to do a better job of educating our clients, especially in light of the fact that Chubb’s wildfire fighting service is absolutely free. We have to get our clients thinking about fires, about pine beetles that kill the trees, leaving them dead and dry. Roughly half of our clients are currently enrolled in the program, and we want the rest to sign up as well.”
Jim Merriman, executive vice president of HUB International in Los Angeles, says that HUB’s clients who enroll in the program have greater peace of mind knowing the service is out there. “My job is to get people to enroll,” he says. “All they have to do is say ‘yes.’ Some people are reluctant to give out too much information about their property, but it is for their benefit.”
Says Fuhriman: “Wildfire season is upon is. With WDS, we’re ready for it.”
For more information:
Chubb Wildfire Defense Service
Web site: www.chubb.com/personal