|Ref: Insurance company protects client homes from fire in West
| 08.28.2007 | 06:01:42 | Views: 1916 |
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August 28, 2007
The Wealthy Get an Extra Shield for Wildfires
By WILLIAM YARDLEY
KETCHUM, Idaho, Aug. 26 — The wind shifted, and suddenly the wildfire that has been raging just west of these exclusive high desert hills appeared closer than ever to Al LaPeter’s 7,000 square feet of the sweet life.
“Oh, God,” Mr. LaPeter said.
Then he exhaled, and relaxed. After all, he has insurance. His big house on the Big Wood River? The Ferrari 430 Spider in the garage? The immaculate Model A Ford? Covered. Literally.
Right then and there, Tom Futral, a guy from Montana with a spray gun and a truckload of the magical goop that has quickly become the envy of the second-home set in this pricey part of the parched West, was applying fire retardant to Mr. LaPeter’s shake roof and wood house, courtesy of his insurer, the AIG Private Client Group.
“They called me,” Mr. LaPeter, 62, said. “I didn’t even know that they did this.”
That may be because this is the first time in memory that a wildfire has so closely threatened the A-list redoubts of Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley (there are $3.7 billion in assets to protect, according to the incident commander leading the fire fight), and it is the first time AIG has deployed a crew to Idaho as part of its Wildfire Protection Unit for high-end clients who are willing to pay what the company says is an average of $10,000 annually for homeowner’s insurance.
The company, which insurance industry experts say is the only major insurer applying emergency fire retardant as part of some policies, has offered the service since 2005 in parts of California and Colorado. But increasing development at the fringes of national forests, recent drought and higher temperatures are combining to expand the risk of property damage and expand the AIG client list. Last year, the insurer sent crews to fires in Montana and Texas. Federal firefighters largely welcome the help.
“There are people that are building in places where they never used to build before,” said Dorothy Sarna, vice president and national director of risk management for AIG Private Client Group. “They’re getting more and more into what we call the urban interface,” where development meets publicly owned wilderness.
The Forest Service has emphasized that the federal government needs help protecting structures given the increase in private development next to public lands.
Of the assist from AIG, Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, said, “We don’t see any downside to it. The homeowner receives added protection, the insurer may be able to avoid a large payoff and it frees up firefighters to work on suppression rather than protecting structures. That’s one of the big changes in firefighting in the last 20 years. People are moving into areas that have burned historically.”
AIG is not alone in offering premium service for higher premiums. Several companies, including Chubb and Fireman’s Fund, will help prepare homes in advance of wildfires by creating plans for clearing the kind of brush and branches that become fire fuel and, for a fee, sometimes hiring contractors to do the work. Insurers provide similarly specialized service to limit damage from hurricanes, such as specifying what kind of shutters a house should have and which valuable furnishings should be moved where in the event of flooding and quickly coming out to cover damaged roofs.
But out West, AIG is taking special treatment to a new level. It has a contract with Firebreak Spray Systems to deploy crews to apply retardant wherever policy holders are threatened by wildfire. This year, the fire season has been so busy and widespread that Firebreak has had to subcontract work in Idaho to Mr. Futral, a distributor of Phos-Chek, the fertilizer-like retardant Firebreak uses. Firebreak and Mr. Futral also install permanent sprinkler systems that can be activated remotely, even by cellphone, to spray retardant on homes when their owners are away.
The Phos-Chek used by the companies is clear, but Firebreak says it is chemically similar to the red-dyed retardant wildfire crews have been dropping on parts of Bald Mountain and the Sawtooth National Forest since the fire, known as the Castle Rock fire, broke out last week. The fire has expanded to about 25,000 acres, though part of the increase is because of “burn-back” efforts to keep fire from reaching populated areas. So far no structures have been lost.
Jeanne Pincha-Tulley, the incident commander with the United States Forest Service who was overseeing the crew of 1,300 that was fighting the fire over the weekend, is based in fire-prone California and said that in three decades of firefighting she had never heard of an insurance company showing up to spray retardant on homes while a fire is threatening.
“That’s a first, I have to admit,” Ms. Pincha-Tulley said. “But that’s the kind of affluence there is here.”
Mr. Futral said he and an employee expected to treat 40 or more of the approximately 200 houses that AIG Private Client Group insures in the area, and that his list was growing rapidly as people had heard about the service or simply seen neighbors being given the treatment.
Mr. LaPeter, who owns shopping centers and splits his time between Idaho and Maui, said the service might be a security blanket for the rich, but that it was also good business.
“At first I thought, I’ve never heard of an insurance company coming and doing that. But, duh! Of course they should,” he said. “I mean, compare the cost of these guys’ coming out to the cost of replacing a $3 million or $4 million home.”
Mr. Futral weighed in. “Save one $10 million house and it pencils out pretty quickly,” he said. “And there are a lot of nice homes here — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood.”
He stopped short of saying whose houses he had sprayed. Ms. Sarna, of AIG, acknowledged a business incentive but said the priority was “making sure people don’t lose their home.”
Mr. Futral said he has had to procure permission from Ms. Pincha-Tulley to enter some evacuated areas.
All is not lost for homeowners who lack high-end coverage. Some private fire-protection companies will apply various kinds of retardants for a one-time fee — Mr. Futral said he would do so for $800 to $1,000. Thermo-Gel, based in North Dakota, has been applying a retardant to some homes near the Castle Rock fire. And when houses are severely threatened, fire officials say, firefighting crews are often stationed at individual houses, where they may cut down trees, clear brush and wet roads, roofs and landscaping.
But the idea of an extra ounce of prevention for those who can afford it has a special allure here where plenty of people can.
Michel Lalanne, who splits his time between Sun Valley and France, watched Mr. Futral apply retardant to a house across the street and asked whether he might obtain his services for a price, even though he was not covered by AIG Private Client Group.
“He said, ‘No,’ ” Mr. Lalanne said. “ ‘We’ve got a long list.’ ”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company