The intense West Coast wildfires started early this year, but some residents are at more risk than others of paying a high price to repair or rebuild their homes than others.
Thousands have been evacuated from homes in Washington in California, where wildfires have been severe enough to prompt Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency in 12 counties and ask the National Guard for firefighting assistance for the first time in more than 30 years.
Powerful fires that spread across dry, wooded areas throughout the West have pushed more homeowners to take preventive steps in recent years. One especially useful measure is spraying fire retardant on the brush surrounding the home, and on the home itself, to keep the flames at bay.
AIG's (AIG) Private Client Group, which caters to the wealthy, offers this service for free to existing policyholders in five metropolitan areas: Aspen, San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange County and San Francisco Bay. Nearly 3,200 are now enrolled, compared with 1,200 in January 2007. The insurer says its enrollment levels spike each time there are large fires, like a 60% increase following blazes last fall.
AIG's loss-prevention team has contracted with a company called Firebreak Spray Systems, which sprays a phosphate-based substance called Phoscheck on all the brush within three miles of a residence. The home is sprayed only if a fire spreads beyond that parameter. AIG follows wildfires with a tracking system to determine whether any of the homes under its insurance are at risk.
The product has a chemical reaction with plant matter so that instead of lighting up, it creates water vapor and carbon dioxide when fire touches it. Todd Triano, vice president of loss prevention at the Private Client Group, says the retardant saved "a number of homes" in the fires that spread last October.