By P. SOLOMON BANDA
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - When firefighter Eric Morris shows up at wildfires across the West, locals battling the flames sometimes look at him and wonder who sent him.
The answer isn't a public agency. It's an insurance company.
Morris is among a group of private firefighters hired in recent years to protect homes with high-end insurance policies. In a wildfire season that is one of the busiest and most destructive ever to hit the region, authorities and residents say their help is welcome.
"There's curiosity the first time they work with us," he said. "After a while of explaining and making some calls to the right people, they let us right in."
Morris and his nine-man crew helped protect 35 homes in Colorado Springs in the most destructive fire in the state's history. It killed two people and destroyed 346 homes.
There are no numbers available for how many homes these firefighters save and, given the unpredictable nature of fires, few are willing to take credit.
For insurers, hiring their own crew is worth the cost. They spend thousands on well-equipped, federally rated firefighters, potentially saving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to replace a home and its contents.
Insurance companies began sending crews to wildfires around 2006, said Paul Broyles, former head of fire operations at the National Interagency Fire Center, which coordinates federal firefighting efforts from Boise, Idaho. Land use changes in the past two decades have allowed more homes to be built in or near wildfire-prone areas, prompting the insurance companies to offer such a service, said Michael Barry of the New York-based industry funded Insurance Information Institute.
"They got a job to do just like we do, and it's a legitimate response by the insurance companies," Broyles said.
Morris' crew worked for Chubb Personal Insurance, which provides coverage for homes typically valued between $400,000 and $3 million, said Kevin Fuhriman, the company's personal lines catastrophe manager.
"It's an added layer of protection for our clients," Fuhriman said. "From a business perspective? It's an extremely advantageous business proposition."
Other companies offer fire protection services, typically for higher-end clients, said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
"Just because you don't have this type of policy doesn't mean you don't have fire protection," Walker insisted. "That's what people pay taxes for, and (public) firefighters do a wonderful job protecting homes. I mean, they saved hundreds of homes on this fire."
C.J. Moore, who was digging through the ashes of her home in the hard hit Mountain Shadows subdivision, said she would have bought a policy with fire protection if she could afford it. She noted, however, that sometimes having money isn't enough to save your home.
"The fire went through this neighborhood so fast there was no hope for these houses," she said. "The fire burned so hot that the driveways look like they were hit by a jackhammer."
Morris works for Wildland Defense Systems of Red Lodge, Mont. It has worked alongside the federal firefighting system for years, responding to more than 80 wildfires since 2008, said the company's president, David Torgerson.
Wildland has 50 engines and about 100 firefighters strategically located in 11 Western states, the Dakotas and Texas.
The private crews work closely with - and report to - incident commanders at the scene. Their presence means other firefighters can focus on other structures, said Greg Huele, a spokesman with the federal team in charge of the Colorado Springs fire.
"We can't be in there freelancing," Morris said. "Everything we do is coordinated."
Morris and his crew deployed from near Ruidoso, N.M., to Colorado Springs hours after the fire erupted June 23.
Morris showed up at the fire with three so-called brush trucks, each capable of carrying 450 gallons of water, and a tanker truck that carries 1,200 gallons. Their main focus was protecting homes by reducing the number places a fire can take hold.
They close doors and windows left open by fleeing evacuees. They move flammable materials away from Chubb-insured homes - patio furniture, shrubs, even pine needles collected in gutters - that can ignite. They also use inflatable water tanks to feed sprinkler systems to wet down the house and surrounding area.
The crews also carry 5-gallon tubs of a fire retardant gel that when mixed with water can coat a house with a thin wet layer to keep flying embers from igniting the house.
It's a last ditch effort to protect homes that Morris' crew had to employ three times before they evacuated the Cedar Heights neighborhood for their safety.
The crews focus their efforts on insured homes that are facing the greatest threat from the wildfire without regard for the home's value, Fuhriman said.
Chubb, Wildland or Morris would not take credit for all of Chubb's insured homes surviving the blaze. They point instead to the effort of more than 1,500 firefighters.
In some instances, only one or two home survived on a street while the rest burned to the foundation. That can be attributed to the random nature of fire, which left some homes in a smoldering heap while sparing trees and shrubs, even mail inside a mailbox.
In other instances, homes survived because it's where public firefighters were able to safely defend the home, Colorado Springs Fire Chief Rich Brown said.
"Having your home burn to the ground is devastating," said Bill Simmons, whose home survived and who does not have an insurance policy offering individual home protection. "I hope everybody would appreciate any help that you have."