Montana company offering wildfire protection to some Spokane home, farm owners

Kip Hill, The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.
·3 min read

Apr. 18—Nearly 300,000 homes and farms in Washington just received an added defense against destructive wildfires, part of a growing national trend intended to reduce the devastation of longer, more intense fire seasons.

Wildfire Defense Systems, a Bozeman-based company that deploys trained and certified firefighters to several states in the West, has teamed up with State Farm to provide protection services to policyholders in Washington. Spokane-area policyholders were notified of the new agreement, which took effect April 1, by a mailing from the company earlier this month.

The service comes at no additional cost to policyholders, and includes services typical of home and property defense during a wildfire. That includes vegetation removal and setting up sprinkler systems. Firefighters working for Wildfire Defense Systems can also apply flame-retardant gel to homes that are in danger of catching fire, and they do so with the agreement of local incident commanders, said David Torgerson, president of the company.

"We're granted that access so we know which properties will ultimately be threatened, and we serve those properties," Torgerson said.

Private contractors have been used by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies to combat wildfires since the 1980s, Torgerson noted.

Since 2008, the company has responded to nearly 900 wildfires on behalf of the insurance companies they work with, which include other firms besides State Farm. The service is being extended into Washington after a pilot program in Colorado and Oregon in 2020, said Jordi Ortega, a spokesperson for the insurance provider.

Protection also is being extended to policyholders in California and Arizona, Ortega said.

"I think what this service will provide is peace of mind," said Ortega.

Firefighters working for Wildfire Defense Systems, once cleared into an area, will work to provide defensive protection for property that may be within evacuation zones. That's in addition to other firefighters on call that will actively fight the spread of the fire, Torgerson said.

Such defensive crews started arriving and working fires in the region a couple of years ago, said Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. He drew a parallel between their work and that of private fire brigades that worked for insurance companies and served cities in England and the early United States, before the formation of municipal fire departments.

"You started really seeing it in California," Schaeffer said. "The companies have a vested interest in real property."

That was the point of the private fire brigades in the 18th and 19th centuries, when buildings received a "fire insurance mark" that would show which company's firefighting service was responsible for protecting a particular building or block. Such marks are still visible on buildings in Philadelphia and Baltimore, among other locations.

As the threat of destructive Western wildfires have increased, Wildfire Defense Systems has been working to enter more agreements and protect more property, Torgerson said.

"By many insurance companies doing this, we end up with a large number of properties on wildfire incidents that have this service standard with their policies," Torgerson said.

The addition of the coverage should not keep homeowners from taking their usual measures to reduce fire risk, Ortega said. With heavy winds predicted early this week in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, and a scant chance of precipitation in the National Weather Service's long-range forecast, property owners should still be taking steps to prepare for fires, he said. That includes keeping important documents ready to bring with you in case of an evacuation.

"Hopefully people will continue to be proactive in protecting their home, before a wildfire is nearby," Ortega said.