Nestled in the beautiful Stanislaus National Forest in northern California lies Camp Peaceful Pines, an affiliated summer camping program of the Church of the Brethren. It’s a spiritual camp that enables experiences of faith through nature and the great outdoors.
But the peace was threatened earlier this month when Camp Peaceful Pines found itself dangerously close to the epicenter of the raging Donnell Fire – a 36,288 acre blaze stretching from Donnell Lake and the Sonora Pass over to Dardanelle and Lightning Mountain.
So far, the Donnell Fire has destroyed 54 major structures and 81 minor structures. An army of almost 700 personnel is tackling the disruptive blaze, including 15 hand crews, seven helicopters, 20 engines and five water tenders. After 28 days of burning, 63% of the fire has been contained.
For Camp Peaceful Pines, the Donnell Fire could have been catastrophic. Like many summer camps, it’s totally off-grid, surrounded by woodland, and full of old, primarily wooden structures. The word ‘flammable’ would be an understatement.
But thanks to insurance, the camp survived. In fact, despite being surrounded by burning timber, the only damages Camp Peaceful Pines sustained was a minor problem with an irrigation line. All buildings were left standing thanks to the hard work of the emergency services and of the camp’s insurer, Church Mutual Insurance.
Garry Pearson, camp director and board chair of Camp Peaceful Pines, recounts: “I was out in the back-country hiking when I got word of the Donnell Fire. I wasn’t able to react but the camp property manager out of Fresno was on-hand. Church Mutual got in contact with us to reassure us they were being proactive in their response to the fire.
“They provided a hedge of protection. They sent in a strike team that was strategically placed in the incident center at Dodge Ridge, who went to camp alongside the fire service and sprayed all of the buildings with fire retardant. Thanks to their hard work and proactivity, all of our buildings are still standing.”
The church camp is participating in Church Mutual’s innovative wildfire program, which offers a comprehensive approach to wildfire defense. The program includes access to 24/7 wildfire monitoring services, which sends emails or text message alerts to those in danger, as well as wildfire prevention advice and a fire mitigation service.
With the advice of its insurance agent through Church Mutual affiliated Church & Casualty Insurance Agency, Camp Peaceful Pines has been “very proactive in managing [its] vegetative plan,” Pearson added. The camp regularly clears flammable materials by raking pine needles and removing dead trees from the vicinity. In January this year, the team removed 10 truck-loads of highly-flammable lumber from camp grounds and the surrounding areas – an effort that might have made a huge impact when Donnell threatened.
“We work with Church Mutual through an agent, who I must say, has been fantastic,” Pearson told Insurance Business. “Our agent was extremely proactive in contacting us exclusively and keeping us updated about the fire and what Church Mutual was doing. She also gave us advice about wildfire prevention, without which we could be facing more serious damages today.
“What Church Mutual did was be proactive and give that little bit extra. Our camp buildings are about 60-years-old. Spending [X thousand dollars] to protect them with fire retardant, versus replacement costs of about $1.5 million or higher, was really proactive on their part. All of us at Camp Peaceful Pines are in awe of what they did. We have very high regards for our insurance agent… and their strike team.”
For the insurer, Camp Peaceful Pines is just one success story to arise out of its new wildfire solutions program. Tom Kluxdal, director of innovation at Church Mutual, commented: “Our goal is to protect the greater good of our policyholders, their congregants, their employees and so forth. The situation at Camp Peaceful Pines looked very dire. When we got to the location, the fire had already consumed the area and was moving at a very fast rate.
“We got in contact with Gary and the Camp Peaceful Pines team to alert them that the camp was in the line of the fire and then we sent our [partner] mitigation firm to provide a private fire fighting service. We deployed two fire engines with approximately six individuals, who stayed at the camp from August 08 through 12, putting out smokes day and night. Fortunately, because of their efforts and that of the fire service, they prevented the facility (of total insured value of about $1.4 million) from burning down. Our mission is to protect the greater good, and we achieved that in this case.”