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Snuffing Flame Claims: Fire Prevention a Part of HNW Market Competition

June 10, 2013 - 07/11/13
By Bonnie Cavanaugh

While wildfires raged this year in California, Colorado and Arizona, high-net-worth insurers were there too, providing fire deterrent services to the mansions and sprawling estates of their private-client insureds.

This vital service—preventing, if possible, fire from reaching an insured’s multimillion dollar home—is a deterrent to paying large losses should one of these properties be consumed by flames. And now almost every HNW carrier in the segment has its own fire protection unit or contracts such services with a third-party supplier.

The AIG Private Client Group launched its Wildfire Protection Unit in 2005 when it was faced with not being able to insure homes in wildfire areas because of the financial expense, says Jerry Hourihan, group senior vice president.

“The Private Client Group has grown and expanded to almost all of the western states. Wildfire as a peril has gotten to be a bigger and bigger issue for our clients,” says Hourihan.

He stresses that AIG’s unit is a personal wildfire protection program—not an official fire department—that takes pre-emptive measures to prevent fire damage by helping insureds clear away brush or by spraying down client homes with fire-retardant gel. It’s a complimentary service for Private Client Group policyholders in select areas within the western U.S. The company had several HNW clients affected by the June wildfires in Colorado.

It’s also good for customer attraction and retention; insureds—and their friends and neighbors—are often surprised by the hands-on treatment, Hourihan says. “When the word goes out, we’ve got clients for life,” he adds. “We’re also introduced to new ones.”
Chubb’s Wildfire Defense Service launched in 2008 and now serves 14 Western U.S. states, “wherever wildfire risk is most prevalent,” says Jim Fiske (pictured), U.S. marketing manager for Chubb Personal Insurance.

Clients who enroll in the service allow Chubb permission to go on their property if a wildfire is approaching and make recommendations or take any necessary protective measures to prevent the home from catching fire. This may involve removal of brush and vegetation around the home and debris from gutters, Fiske says.

As a last resort, Chubb will spray the client’s house with a fire-repellant gel concentrate, which when added to water, absorbs heat and clings to surfaces, preventing burning, heating or charring. In February, Chubb added evacuation assistance to help customers find shelter for their families and pets when their home is threatened by a wildfire.
ACE’s Risk Consulting Division contracts with Capstone Fire Management Inc. for clients in select areas of Colorado and California, says Gary Raphael, the division’s senior vice president, who has helped develop various wildfire mitigation programs.

When a client first signs up for the program, an ACE risk consultant reviews the insured’s property and develops a plan to reduce the threat of fire, which also serves as a record of the insured’s property, according to the ACE website.

During a wildfire, ACE and Capstone monitor the situation and advise the client if action needs to be taken to secure their property, which could include moving combustible materials away from any structures.

“If fire does come up to the property they can apply a gel if necessary,” Raphael says.
PURE (Privilege Underwriters Reciprocal Exchange) offers a Wildfire Mitigation Program through a partnership with Firebreak Spray Systems LLC of Hood River, Ore. The fire-management company sprays clients’ homes with a fertilizer-based product called Phos-Chek Long-Term Fire Retardant: It’s the same red-dyed substance that the U.S. Forest Service has been dropping by air on burning forests for many years.

Fireman’s Fund does not in fact participate in any fire-prevention practice for its insureds—eschewing such practices and partnerships as marketing ploys—instead offering tips on Wildfire Readiness from the National Fire Protection Association.
The company does note on its website that more HNW clients are living in remote wild areas that are prone to wildfire, which it calls the Wildland Urban Interface: “semi-rural areas … attractive to higher income earners who wish to escape the congested cities and suburbs and live in a more natural environment.”

And more HNW insurers are focusing on them: “Insurance company fire units are an increasingly popular ‘offering’ from companies that certainly provide good publicity, but are not always effective,” the company states. “In fact, they can create a false sense of security for homeowners and result in disastrous consequences.”

Instead, Fireman’s Fund recommends that homeowners have an evacuation plan ready; make sure their home and property are in compliance with current fire codes; use fire-resistant construction; and ensure that all structures on the property are surrounded by “defensible space,” i.e., free of brush and debris that could catch fire.

The latter is part of the municipal code in many jurisdictions, the company notes.
Fireman’s Fund also advises its insureds to seal roofing materials and block attic vents and eves to prevent entry by small burning embers that can travel on the wind miles from a wildfire site, and burn down a structure from within.