Private firefighters fuel tensions in CA wine country

When last October’s Glass Fire raged through California’s Napa Valley wine country, firefighter Ryan Bellanca battled to keep the blaze from devastating an upscale vineyard.

But Bellanca wasn't working for any fire department. The owner of the vineyard had hired his private company, Bella Wildfire & Forestry, to protect the property.

Authorities, however - including Cal Fire, the state’s fire agency, and the Napa Sheriff’s office - weren’t so pleased.

Bellanca said Cal Fire accused his crew of lighting dangerous backfires – which consume fuel in a wildfire's path – and failing to leave an evacuated area.

He denies lighting the backfires, but admits his team failed to advise Cal Fire that it was in the evacuated area, as required by law.

[BELLANCA]: "We then had CalFire's management team come in and ask us to go ahead and evacuate….”

The incident highlights how a booming business in private firefighting is creating friction with government firefighters as wildfires grow more frequent and dangerous across the western U.S.

Brian Rice is the president of California Professional Firefighters, which represents more than 30,000 government firefighters.

"These private contractors took it upon themselves to take one of the most dangerous and trained on operations in wildland firefighting on themselves. They didn't communicate it to anybody. They did it by themselves. And they not only endangered the lives of those (government) firefighters on that strike team that were moving from the incident command with their assignment to their assigned place, but all the firefighters in that area."

[CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR GAVIN NEWSOM]: “Let’s be realistic. Fire season has already started....”

In April, California Governor Gavin Newsom said the state had already seen twice as many fires this year as in this same period of 2020.

Meaning, the controversy over private firefighting is likely only going to heat up.

State firefighters complain that private contractors can get in the way or even accelerate a fire by focusing solely on a particular property - for a paying customer - rather than entire communities. And unless they are contracted by government agencies, these fire service companies have broad leeway when it comes to staff training and insurance.

[RICE]: “And private contractors, acting with independent action, responsible to no one except their insurance company and the bottom line, a dollar, are absolutely not the answer, nor are they the future."

Representatives of private fire services companies say they work well with authorities.

An executive in the Napa wine industry predicted that demand for private firefighting will increase as some vineyards struggle to get stretched-thin government crews onto their property.

Cal Fire did not respond to requests for comment.

With homes built ever closer to fire-prone countryside, some 280 wildland fire contracting companies now work across the country, mostly in the western U.S.