KETCHUM - Yes, the rich are different than the rest of us.
A private fire crew dispatched by a national insurance company that caters to wealthy clients is guarding 22 high-end homes threatened by the Castle Rock Fire, a blaze that has forced the evacuation of hundreds of million-dollar homes west of Ketchum.
The crew will protect only homes insured by AIG Private Client Group, an insurance company that offers "loss-prevention services" to its wealthiest customers. A truck and two-man crew sent by AIG from Montana arrived in Ketchum about 2 p.m. Wednesday to start dousing properties with Phos-Chek, the same fire retardant dropped from U.S. Forest Service aircraft.
"We're not going out there to fight the fire," said Dorothy Sarna, vice president and national director of risk-management services and loss prevention for the New York-based company. "We're out there to protect our clients."
Veteran fire managers now working the Castle Rock fire say they've never heard of a private fire crew protecting individual homes in the midst of a wildfire, said Dave Olson, a spokesman for the Forest Service.
The private crew has been granted access to areas closed to residents, but not all officials with public fire agencies were thrilled by the sight of the truck scooting through a smoky web of government fire crews.
"That sounds ridiculous to me," said Kim Rogers, a Ketchum Police Department spokesman, "especially since we haven't lost any structures. I mean, this is a Forest Service fire, not a private fire."
Nevertheless, the crew has Forest Service blessing.
AIG's private fire-protection program began about three years ago, based mostly in the wealthiest communities in California and Colorado. This is the first time the crew has come to the Wood River Valley, an area as famous for mansions as the rest of the state is for potatoes.
Properties insured under the Private Client Group are all worth more than $1 million, or their owners pay more than $10,000 annually in premiums. AIG says it's not aware of any other insurance companies that offer private fire protection.
The insurance company realized several years ago that it could save money if it took a proactive approach to wildfires, said Peter Tulupman, an AIG spokesman. AIG contracts with Firebreak Spray Systems, a company that specializes in home fire-protection services that include an outdoor, sprinkler-like fire retardant system.
Firebreak, which owns seven fire trucks, was started by the inventor of produce watering systems now common in grocery stores, said co-owner Eddie Hosch.
Firebreak has saved three houses from other fires since AIG began using it hree years ago, Sarna said. That's millions of dollars in claims the insurer would have paid had those high-end homes burned.
"We're not only in the business of paying claims," she said. "We're in the business of preventing them."
One privately protected home at a time.