STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:
It is officially summer.
CONSTANZA GALLARDO, HOST:
VANEK SMITH: Still kind of early summer. Summer brings a lot of wonderful things with it. One of the not-so-wonderful things it brings is wildfires. Last year's wildfire season was particularly brutal and record setting. In California alone, nearly 2 million acres burned, and more than 18,000 homes were destroyed.
GALLARDO: Yeah. And one home that wasn't - Kim Kardashian and Kanye's house. And the reason was all about money.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Kanye West and Kim Kardashian paid for their own private team of firefighters.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A team of private firefighters, though, saved Kim and Kanye's $60 million mansion, according...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Research on this. Private firefighting, it is an actual industry.
VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.
GALLARDO: And I'm Constanza Gallardo. Today on the show, the booming business of private firefighters.
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GALLARDO: The private firefighting industry is still pretty new. A lot of the companies are based in California, like Fire Break Protection Systems in Ventura County.
VANEK SMITH: And, you know, these do not look like regular firehouses. There's no, like, big brick building with flags out front or giant red trucks. Fire Break Protection Systems is in a strip mall next to a company that installs skylights.
KEN KIRK: Hi.
VANEK SMITH: Hi. How are you?
KIRK: Good. Come on in.
VANEK SMITH: Thanks for - sorry we were late.
GALLARDO: Good. Are you Ken?
VANEK SMITH: Inside, there's this spacious office and, like, half a dozen big, beefy firefighter types sitting at these sort of sleek cubicles, looking at computer screens. There's pop music playing in the background.
GALLARDO: Chris Brandini owns the place. He's a big guy, very strapping, gray hair and mustache, deep tan.
VANEK SMITH: I mean, you guys look like firefighters. But then this looks like a nice little startup office.
CHRIS BRANDINI: Right. No, it's totally different than...
GALLARDO: Chris used to sell firefighting equipment to homeowners and insurance companies - things like sprinkler systems, special flame-retardant foam. But then, he says, a couple of insurance companies came to him and said, hey, you know a lot about fires, right? So why don't we hire you to fight them?
BRANDINI: I said, sure. Sounds like - why not?
VANEK SMITH: In fact, it's the insurance companies that are really fueling the business of private firefighting teams. They started getting serious about it around 20 years ago, when wildfires started getting worse and development in high-risk fire areas really started taking off.
GALLARDO: Karen Bradshaw is a professor of law at Arizona State University. She studies wildfires.
KAREN BRADSHAW: So if you think of the outskirts of, for example, Los Angeles, people who are living in the million-dollar homes tend to be those who are tucked into these beautiful, forested enclaves.
GALLARDO: Suddenly, insurance companies were seeing their most valuable homes regularly at risk of burning down. So they started hiring their own firefighting teams whose job it would be to specifically protect their homes.
VANEK SMITH: Technically, all these places are covered by, like, the city...
BRANDINI: City, right.
VANEK SMITH: ...Or the county or whatever, so why do you guys need to exist?
BRANDINI: Lack of resources. There couldn't possibly be enough resources to go to every single house.
VANEK SMITH: Chris now has contracts with several insurance companies and about a dozen employees. And they deploy three firetrucks.
GALLARDO: Which don't really look like firetrucks.
VANEK SMITH: No.
GALLARDO: They're kind of small, like an SUV.
VANEK SMITH: Yeah, they're just like a regular truck.
GALLARDO: Yeah. But they're equipped with hoses and a 250-gallon tank of water. And Chris and one of his employees, Ryan Barbee, gave us a little tour of the truck.
RYAN BARBEE: So all your equipment's back here - your pack, your helmets.
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VANEK SMITH: Oh (laughter). There's, like, a laptop, like, right in your truck, where the passenger side would be.
BRANDINI: Yup, yup.
VANEK SMITH: And there's, like, this huge map.
BRANDINI: Yep. So all these little green dots you see on this map there are all our houses that we take care of.
GALLARDO: Green dots are the ones that you cover?
BRANDINI: Oh, there's green. There's yellow. They're different insurance companies.
GALLARDO: When a fire breaks out, Chris and his team will get a call over the radio.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That will show us exactly where the fire is.
BRANDINI: Did you just hear that?
VANEK SMITH: What does it say?
BRANDINI: This is a vegetation fire in Oxnard (ph).
VANEK SMITH: OK. This is just coming up on your phone.
BRANDINI: Just came up just now.
VANEK SMITH: This is on an app.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...On Rice (ph).
BRANDINI: Yep. See - did you hear? On Rice. Did you hear? He just said it's on Rice.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Twenty-three.
VANEK SMITH: Turns out they didn't need to respond; the fire was already being taken care of. But when they do need to respond, Chris and his team will spring into action, drive up to the area near the fire, find the houses they are responsible for - the green and yellow dots - and do something he calls a hot lap, which involves going around the house and clearing away all the flammable brush and spraying special flame-retardant foam around the house.
GALLARDO: If the fire comes closer to the house, Chris and his team will fight the fire, sometimes alongside the publicly funded guys, using most of the same equipment firefighters do - big jacket, helmet, axe, first-aid kit.
BARBEE: You know, pocket snacks, man, they get you through the day.
VANEK SMITH: Is that right? Is that, like, important - the pocket snacks?
BRANDINI: Oh, yeah. Sometimes when you go to a fire, we left - we were 42 hours or something like that. We were out on...
BARBEE: Yeah, we were 42 hours. Came home, showered, shaved, slept a couple hours, came back out.
VANEK SMITH: Just like the publicly funded guys. But there is one major difference - if a house is not one of the green or yellow dots on Chris' computer screen, they leave it alone.
BRANDINI: Like I said, if the house isn't on my list, I'm not going to go there. It's tough. It's tough, I think.
VANEK SMITH: Chris is quick to say that the insurance companies have sent them to trailer parks to fight fires there, also to very modest homes; it's not just giant mansions they're protecting. And he says they'll often protect homes in the immediate vicinity of the insured homes because, you know, if those homes catch fire, it threatens the insured home. And he says, he and his team have saved a lot of houses.
BRANDINI: We figured we've saved somewhere around 21 houses over the last few years.
GALLARDO: You have?
BRANDINI: Yeah. Without it, there would have been millions of dollars less out of their pockets, so.
VANEK SMITH: That would be the pockets of the insurance companies.
GALLARDO: Chris won't say exactly how much he gets paid from an insurance company, but he says it's in the tens of thousands of dollars a year, but definitely less than half a million.
VANEK SMITH: We did get that much out of him.
GALLARDO: (Laughter) While that may seem like a lot, insurance companies have clearly decided that it's cost-effective for them to hire Chris and his team, especially if they're going to be saving these multimillion dollar mansions.
VANEK SMITH: Karen Bradshaw of Arizona State University says that with more and more pricey homes being built in these high-risk areas next to forests and wilderness, hiring private firefighters is probably going to continue to be cost-effective for insurance companies.
BRADSHAW: The reason being that wildfire risk is still quite small, and the value of these homes and the number of these homes is really quite large.
GALLARDO: Chris says he's already seen his industry grow a lot just in the last couple of years.
BRANDINI: And we pulled up to this one house, and there was four or five different private agencies sitting there; everybody's in different houses. It was pretty wild. Never seen that before.
VANEK SMITH: Oh, you - like, all the trucks are sitting in front of the houses they're protecting?
BRANDINI: Yeah, yeah. So we're rolling up and looking at our houses, and there's one of them. And I'm like, where are you guys from? And they're from all over the world.
VANEK SMITH: Were they also all working for insurance companies?
VANEK SMITH: But now it's not just the insurance companies; individuals have started hiring private firefighters, too. Chris says, last year, when the fires got really bad, they started getting calls every day from people begging them to come protect their homes.
GALLARDO: He had no idea what to charge for that service, so he started calling around to other companies.
BRANDINI: For 24 hours, it was, like, $20,000 or $25,000. It was pretty expensive.
VANEK SMITH: Just for one - for a year, or just for the one...
BRANDINI: No, for a day. That was a day.
VANEK SMITH: Ooh, really?
BRANDINI: Yeah, it was a day.
VANEK SMITH: Twenty-five thousand dollars a day?
BRANDINI: Yeah, I was kind of surprised because I - you know, I said - I mean, that's a lot.
VANEK SMITH: And this just doesn't sit very well with a lot of people, right? Karen Bradshaw says we have this idea in the U.S. that firefighters are supposed to be publicly funded, they're supposed to work for the people, protect us all equally; not protect an expensive house over a cheap house or, you know, Kanye's mansion before a trailer park.
BRADSHAW: And it becomes a real question, which I think is true in so many places in American society, where the government has historically provided some degree of provision of a public good like education, but over time, perhaps the government provision of that good has diminished and admits that, private solutions like private education come up, and people become concerned about the differential income effects that result.
GALLARDO: And just as in the case with education, having enough money to get a private service instead of the publicly available service can have life-changing effects.
VANEK SMITH: Take Paradise, the lower-income town in Northern California that was burned to the ground by one of the fires last year. Thousands of residents lost their homes. The whole town was basically destroyed. Meanwhile, Kim Kardashian's home was saved, along with her neighbors' homes. She went on "Ellen" a few days later to talk about it.
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KIM KARDASHIAN: We were fortunate enough and blessed enough; we were able to get private firefighters. They saved our home and saved our neighborhood.
ELLEN DEGENERES: The neighborhood as well.
VANEK SMITH: In gratitude for her home being saved, Kim presented Ellen with a giant check for $200,000, made out to California firefighters.
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VANEK SMITH: This episode was produced by Constanza Gallardo, fact-checked by Emily Lang and edited by Paddy Hirsch. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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