Fired Up

Celebrities are using private firefighters to save their neighborhoods

News Urbanism West
Residents evacuating from the Woolsey Fire on November 9 outside Los Angeles, including wealthy enclaves like Malibu. (Cyclonebiskit/Wikimedia)
Residents evacuating from the Woolsey Fire on November 9 outside Los Angeles, including wealthy enclaves like Malibu. (Cyclonebiskit/Wikimedia)

As the Woolsey and Camp Fires continue to burn across California, razing a combined total of nearly 250,000 acres and destroying entire towns, celebrities are turning to private firefighting teams to keep their homes safe.

Kanye West and Kim Kardashian reportedly hired a team of private firefighters to save their $60 million mansion in Hidden Hills, protecting the rest of the neighborhood in the process. Big insurance companies like Chubb and AIG offer firefighting services to high-rolling clients as preventative measures. As The Atlantic noted, Wildfire Defense Systems, a private company from Montana, currently has 53 fire engines on the ground in California and is working to safeguard 1,000 homes. At a time when climate change-accelerated wildfires are occurring year-round, the privatization of a form of public infrastructure has become more commonplace as well.

West and Kardashian first picked up the 15,000-square-foot mansion in 2014 for $20 million, and it’s estimated that the power couple has sunk another $20 million in renovations into the property. Belgian interior designer and staid space enthusiast Axel Vervoordt has been collaborating on the house’s interior, and West revealed a sneak peek of the highly-structural space back in April during a Twitter meltdown.

The couple’s private fire team was able to prevent the encroaching Woolsey Fire from reaching a heavily forested field behind their property by digging fire breaks. Because the house sits at the back of a cul-de-sac, it’s likely that a meltdown at the West-Kardashian mansion would have spread to the rest of the block afterward.

The privatized history of firefighting in America is well known, dating back to when roving bands of firefighters used to squabble for territory throughout the 1800s; the first responders to put out a fire were the ones rewarded by the insurance companies. Those competitions often saw squads setting fires to intentionally throw off their rivals, but the practice thankfully died out in the second half of the 19th century as government ownership became the norm.

A decision in 2010 by firefighters in rural Tennessee to let a house burn down because the owner forgot to pay a $75 fee drew national scorn, but privatized firefighting services are coming back in a big way. The National Wildfire Suppression Association, a group that offers (and lobbies for) private firefighting services currently represents more than 10,000 employees and 150 wildfire contract service companies. It’s estimated that it can cost insurance companies at least $10,000 to send a private team into the field, putting the service far out of the reach of most homeowners.

Thanks to the encroachment of the urban environment into wilderness areas, and dry conditions and higher temperatures caused by climate change, the era of megafires in California may be here to stay. But whether the protection afforded to the megawealthy, normally thought of as a common good, remains out of reach for the masses will remain an open question as these fires only become more prevalent.

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