A Spray Salesman Peddles a Wildfire Cure, and California’s Rich Are Buying It

A Spray Salesman Peddles a Wildfire Cure, and California’s Rich Are Buying It

  • Article

Jim Moseley stands poolside, aviator sunglasses perched on his head, holding a blowtorch. He’s got a stick that’s been treated at one end with SPF 3000, the fire-prevention spray he invented. We’re on the side of a mountain in Malibu in late February, at the modernist home of a renowned Hollywood film editor, whom Moseley asked me not to name. Eucalyptus branches sway in the Pacific breeze. The $3 million home sits at the end of a narrow, winding road. It’s hard to see how a firetruck could get here in an emergency.

Moseley lights the torch—whoosh!—and begins burning the stick to a crisp. “Now I’m going to show you something,” he says, after the untreated end of the wood gets so brittle it breaks in two. He picks up a piece that’s blackened but still intact, fishes a key out of his pocket, and begins scratching. “Here’s the side that I treated,” he says, easily rubbing off the char. “And here’s the wood.”

It’s a convincing demo—enough so that, according to Moseley, scores of Southern California’s wealthy and wildfire-ravaged residents have coated their homes in his product. The Malibu residence of Star Wars actor Mark Hamill has been treated with SPF 3000. Moseley also says he’s sprayed the Neverland Ranch that once belonged to Michael Jackson and received an email from supermodel Elle Macpherson about bringing it to Australia.

I’ve been invited here to witness a demo of the product and hear Moseley’s side of recent events. In August 2019, as he geared up for fire season, prosecutors in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara sued him and his company, Sun FireDefense, for at least $5 million, alleging false or misleading advertising. The suit questioned the effectiveness of SPF 3000, denounced it as toxic, and asserted that, contrary to Moseley’s advertising, NASA had never worked with him on the product.

Moseley has described it as everything from a witch hunt to a regulatory matter that needs to be cleared up. In the meantime he’s temporarily stopped selling SPF 3000 to focus on his company’s other fire-protection gear. His website lists a high-tech fabric that can be used to keep embers from entering vents, laminates that protect windows from shattering under high heat, and intumescent coatings derived from aerospace technology that provide years of protection. These statements are similar to those made about SPF 3000.

Wildfire season is here. In California it’s a part of the psyche. People live with their bags packed, ready to abandon their homes if a blaze gets too close. Climate change is making it worse, and many desperate residents are grasping for anything that’ll keep them and their property safe. Last year was mild by recent standards: Only 260,000 acres got scorched, thanks in part to preemptive power shut-offs that kept electric lines from sparking fires. Even so, some of the state’s toniest locales, from Sonoma County wine country to Brentwood in Los Angeles, went up in flames.

The well-heeled have options besides hoping for the best. Art handlers are on call to remove precious works from hilltop mansions should the flames get too near. For those who can afford it, there are sprinkler systems that can douse a property when the embers start to fly. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West reportedly used a private firefighting force to save their home.

Shen Schulz, a longtime real estate agent in Malibu, says investments in firefighting resources are being driven in part by the “psychodrama” of the last burn. In the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which destroyed hundreds of homes in Malibu, family heirlooms went up in smoke, the stress caused divorces, and even the best insurance policies couldn’t bring it all back. “The fire department wasn’t able to put the fire out because there was no water in the hydrants,” Schulz says. “You have to take it into your own hands.”

Although it’s not cheap—SPF 3000 averages about $3.50 per square foot, which means it costs tens of thousands of dollars to cover a large home—Moseley’s product is another way the rich are trying to do just that. Fire experts express concern, though, that people are getting a false sense of security from expensive and unproven technology. For homes that are already standing in risky areas, some of the best protection comes from maintaining and designing landscaping so there’s less stuff to burn. Longer term, state and local governments might decide to buy out homeowners whose properties burn down to prevent redevelopment.

Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., says a wildfire remedy such as SPF 3000 is akin to taking hydroxychloroquine to fight Covid-19, something that people rush to use because it sounds promising but that doesn’t end up working. “It’s a fig leaf,” he says. “It’s a sign of desperation that people realize now, finally, that their great ridgetop view comes with risks.”

Moseley, 54, has had such a wide range of professional experiences that he jokes he’s in “dire need of career counseling.” But little on his résumé suggests he would invent a novel firefighting spray.

He grew up just outside Independence, Mo., where he says his father was an ally of Harry Truman, one of the town’s most famous residents, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress. Starting in the 1980s, the younger Moseley worked as a professional trombonist, playing in the Dixieland Band at Disneyland as well as with luminaries such as Lou Rawls and Frank Sinatra. One of his long-standing engagements was with the Crystal Cathedral Symphony Orchestra, which accompanied televangelist Robert Schuller during his Hour of Power TV program.

Moseley’s other professional endeavors included a stint selling life insurance and running a company in the early 2000s that made “bubble leather” jackets, which he says Keith Richards and Earth, Wind & Fire wore. “It’s this cool texture,” he says, before going on to describe it as the material that was used for the cape worn by Wesley Snipes’s character in Demolition Man. “We actually got a patent on it.”

Several years ago, after touring an aerospace supplier, Moseley says, he began tinkering with materials that could withstand high heat. One of his first products was a lightweight fire shelter that he promoted after 19 Hotshot firefighters were killed in a blaze in Arizona in 2013.

Craig Weeks, then a division chief for the Los Angeles County Fire Department, was impressed enough that he suggested his colleagues study it for use as a curtain inside truck cabs. Weeks remembers putting Moseley in touch with the U.S. Forest Service. Neither lead resulted in a sale, Moseley says, but the invention helped him win an award in 2014 from Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire businessman and scientist.

In Malibu, Moseley shows me how this product works by holding a piece of the fabric in his bare hand, putting a coin on top, then liquefying the metal with a torch. His hand is unscathed.

He also dreamed up a clear spray that he describes as an “aerospace fire retardant, mixed with marine sealants” and a “nano-ceramic” that expands and contracts with heat. His marketing for the product said a single application could protect “against heat and embers up to 3,000 degrees” for five years. He began selling it around 2015 under the brand name SPF 3000—a bit of marketing that came to him after a conversation with Ron Rice, who created the Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion brand. Moseley bombarded places such as Malibu with direct mail and put commercials on radio and TV.

How could he invent these products without any formal training in chemistry or engineering? “You don’t have to go to college for it,” Moseley says. “Matter of fact, it’ll probably screw you up.” He’s vague on where SPF 3000 is manufactured. He’ll only say that inventory is kept in a facility in East Los Angeles, which isn’t on our tour.

Experts don’t have a monopoly on invention, of course, and sometimes breakthroughs come from unlikely places. But inventing something isn’t the same as proving it works, says Alexander Maranghides, a fire-protection engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Fires are notoriously hard to model in the transition zone between wildland and developed areas. What sort of structures are there? What is the surrounding vegetation? The relationship between how embers fly and ignite stuff isn’t even that clear, Maranghides says. All those variables make it extremely difficult to design a test that re-creates the wide range of real-world conditions.

Maranghides is unfamiliar with Moseley’s product and wouldn’t comment on it specifically. But he points out that the California building code chapter related to exterior wildfire exposure doesn’t include a section on coatings. The reason is simple: “The science is not there,” he says.

Science is key to the lawsuit against Moseley. Santa Barbara District Attorney Joyce Dudley began looking into him after seeing one of his TV ads and doubting that he could substantiate his claims. “I was immediately concerned that this was a predatory company,” she wrote in announcing the case, which was joined by Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer.

The attorneys argued that Moseley hadn’t undergone a weathering test to prove it could last for five years after a single application. Other statements he’d made—that the product created a “self-extinguishing reaction” when touched by flame, that it was nontoxic to humans and animals, that it was developed in collaboration with NASA—were also false or misleading, according to the complaint.

Moseley denies the allegations and says his dealings with NASA were around a possible collaboration on the fire shelter, not SPF 3000. The case is still in the discovery phase. But as someone who’s benefited from largely favorable media coverage, he says the lawsuit was a gut punch. He changed some marketing language, struck the reference to NASA, and decided to fight back. In November the Washington Post featured Moseley in an article about California wildfires that described him demonstrating SPF 3000 to bestselling novelist Dean Koontz. A few weeks later, his public-relations team contacted me.

When the demonstration in Malibu is over, we climb into Moseley’s silver Porsche Panamera Turbo and zip along Sunset Boulevard through lush neighborhoods. “Call Tom, Bel Air,” he tells his phone, letting one of his clients know we’re coming. We climb up another impossibly twisty road past multimillion-dollar mansions, occasionally passing a chain-link fence cordoning off a property damaged by fire. There seems little pattern to it—perfectly intact homes sit next door to piles of rubble.

Tom Kimble, a general contractor, is waiting for us next to his pickup truck when we pull up to a modern house with expensive-looking wood siding. Kimble says the home was treated with SPF 3000 during construction, which wrapped up a few months before the Skirball Fire in 2017. “It was a real firestorm, and this house didn’t make it,” Kimble says, pointing to the burned-out lot across the street. “But we did.”

It’s a compelling testimonial—but it could also be a matter of pure, dumb luck. “The probability that a home across the street didn’t burn is pretty high in any given wildfire,” says Alexandra Syphard, a member of Governor Gavin Newsom’s Wildfire Safety Advisory Board. “A lot of times the wind just happens to shift or an ember just happens to land on the burned house.”

Syphard gets email all the time from people peddling new technologies for hardening homes. (When I called her in July, I barely got a chance to describe Moseley’s product before she stopped me and asked, “Is this the one that’s like a condom for your house?” It wasn’t.) In California, she says, people have tried to take matters into their own hands for decades. Even Richard Nixon got out on his roof with a garden hose in 1961 to protect his home from the Bel Air Fire.

“You can’t blame that psychology,” Syphard says. But “there are a lot of instances where people go overboard and spend a lot of money on something that’s not going to help out.”

After almost a full day of talking to Moseley, I realized he hadn’t answered my questions. I still didn’t have a clear sense of where SPF 3000 is manufactured, how he perfected the formula, or even where to locate his customers. Instead, I heard an elaborate retelling of his every brush with fame. In five hours of name-dropping, he mentioned President Trump’s friend Tom Barrack, Harrison Ford, Marla Maples, and “Marisa Tomei’s parents,” among dozens of other notable people, many of whom have nothing to do with his business or products. The anecdotes washed over me, impossible to scrutinize in the moment.

Later, I started making calls and digging through materials he shared with me.

Rice, the Hawaiian Tropic founder, tells me that he met Moseley on the set of Wild Hogs, a biker-buddy flick starring John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, and William H. Macy. Rice’s daughter was in the movie, and Moseley was there outfitting the cast in bubble leather jackets. Rice befriended the inventor and bought several jackets as gifts. “He’s always coming up with incredible products,” he says of Moseley. “I consider him a genius.”

Still, the best scientific documentation Moseley could muster for his product didn’t really back up his claims. A report he sent me from a lab in Buffalo, for instance, simulated a burn that got up to 746F, a far cry from the 3,000 degrees in his product’s name. Another report from the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal electric utility in Portland, Ore., found that a pole coated with SPF 3000 burned “less vigorously” than one that wasn’t treated during a lightning-strike test. But it was hard to see what that had to do with wildfires. The BPA confirmed it did the test but also said it had no plans to use the product.

When asked about the Buffalo test, Moseley said the point of it wasn’t to get to 3,000F. He doesn’t have a test result proving his product can withstand that higher temperature, but an ingredient in it has been rated that high, he said. Moseley added that he’s never claimed his product would make anyone’s house fireproof or that a lightning strike is equivalent to a wildfire.

Elle Macpherson’s agent says a representative for Sun FireDefense reached out to the supermodel, hoping to get connected to distributors in Australia, and nothing came of it. Moseley also exaggerated his work at the Neverland Ranch, a job he said in February cost more than $100,000. A person familiar with the property but unauthorized to speak on behalf of the owners, Colony Capital and Jackson’s estate, says he treated only a few outlying buildings, not the main house. When I asked Moseley about these statements later, he clarified that Macpherson hadn’t contacted him on her own initiative. She’d replied to an email his chief financial officer sent, and it didn’t go anywhere. He also said the quote for the job at the ranch was more than $100,000, but he ended up doing only about $17,000 of work.

Moseley has also left a trail of disappointed customers.

Laurie Murphy, an attorney who lives in Topanga Canyon, says she felt duped after the lawsuit came out and asked for her money back. She’d hired Moseley to treat her house a few years ago and, even then, questioned whether a pledge he made to pay to rebuild her house if it burned down was legitimate. “Was my BS antenna up a little bit? Yeah,” Murphy says. But at the end of the day, “he’s a pretty good salesman.”

Another homeowner, who asked not to be identified, tells me Sun FireDefense did spotty work when it painted and applied SPF 3000. And the wife of the man who played Luke Skywalker, Marilou Hamill, tells me the paint and protectant on the wood on her Malibu house started peeling about a year after being treated in 2018. “It was the NASA thing that sold me,” she says now. “I just think I got taken.” Moseley said he can’t help it if people feel disappointed by the lawsuit and he’s happy to fix work that customers find lacking.

On several occasions Moseley suggested to me that he was running out of money. In one conversation in June, he described spending his “last dollar” to purchase ads on IHeart Radio. But in the next breath, he was quick to mention how a member of Kool & the Gang had shown interest in his product and wanted to promote it in Australia. In Moseley’s world, there’s always someone who believes.

Because, in California, that’s what’s left. With hundreds of billions of dollars in real estate located in areas prone to burn—and plenty of wealth sloshing around in the state’s exclusive haunts—Moseley has realized a fundamental truth about the place: People desperately want a vaccine for the wildfire problem. But on a warming planet, the long-term solutions are probably going to be far harder and more inconvenient.

Finally, I reached out to Koontz. Moseley had secured a testimonial from him even after the Santa Barbara DA filed her suit. Had the novelist actually coated his home with SPF 3000? And did he willingly give Moseley the endorsement now splashed on Sun FireDefense’s website?

In a lengthy email, Koontz described how he’d struggled to secure insurance for the home when he bought it, a frequent occurrence in California for homeowners in areas susceptible to wildfire. Only one carrier would underwrite the property. “Naturally, this inspired me to do what I could to protect the investment,” he wrote.

He said he found Sun FireDefense’s demonstration “highly effective” and noted how Moseley has been selling his product in tandem with Weeks, who, after leaving the L.A. County Fire Department, started a company that installs elaborate sprinkler systems to protect homes. Besides, Koontz said, the upcharge to coat his home wasn’t too much more than what it cost to paint the house.

“I’m not absolutely beyond being deceived, of course—who is?—so I suppose the ultimate test will be if there’s a fire that sweeps through the neighborhood,” Koontz told me. “I certainly hope that doesn’t happen!”

About the photo: Embers fall from burning palm trees as flames close in on a house in Malibu, California during the Woolsey Fire on Nov. 9, 2018. Photographer: David McNew/Getty Images

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.