The controversial business of private firefighting

A look inside the controversial industry.


September 1, 2020

As wildfires rage across California, the state is facing a shortage of firefighting resources and personnel.

But the state’s wealthy denizens have another option: They can hire one of America’s 300+ private firefighting crews to protect their home for somewhere in the range of $300-$5k/hour.

Sound a bit dystopian?

The bulk of these private fire teams are hired by state and local governments to supplement shorthanded crews.

But there’s also been a surge in commissions from well-to-do individuals — including the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West back in 2018 — who are looking for an extra line of defense that the general public doesn’t have access to.

As one company operator told Reuters: “Wealthy people already have their private schools, and they have their private jets. Now, someone with money says, ‘OK, I am going to hire my own private fire department.’”

UberBLACK, but for fire insurance

In recent years, insurance companies have sold a growing number of plans that bake in private firefighting services.

Most of the time, these firefighters aren’t battling flames — they roll up to douse your roof with fire retardant before the wildfire hits. It comes down to money: They’d rather pay for a private service than be held liable for the loss of a $10m mansion in the Los Angeles hills.

An industry under fire

Some say this privatized branch of the industry has deepened the inequities in disaster relief; others say it’s offered support to a system that is chronically shorthanded.

Either way, the sector is growing: Though private companies make up just 4.3% of all firefighters at large, they now provide ~40% of the nation’s wildfire suppression resources.

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