Fighting fire with fire(tech)

Are firetech startups the future of fighting wildfires?

New funding has created a startup culture dedicated to curbing megafires

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This is the full transcript for season 4, episode 4 of the Quartz Obsession podcast on firetech.

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Nalis: Imagine fire: wildfire burning through a forest, feeding off dry matter, and raging towards human settlements. Imagine the largest fires and centuries, maybe in all of human history. So big that their smoke can be seen across continents.

Now imagine those fires burn uncomfortably close to the center of the most advanced tech industry humanity has ever known—Silicon Valley, California. When the threat of wildfires meets startup central, a creative combustion ignites, giving you… firetech.

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I derive a lot of joy from poking fun at Silicon Valley grandiosity and bro-y branding, but firetech is much more than the cool-sounding name suggests. In fact, it’s some of the most important tools we have to combat wildfires.

Convective Capital, a VC firm that’s funding dozens of firetech companies has essentially created a new startup culture dedicated to curbing megafires and their consequences, not least the enormous amount of greenhouse emissions they cause. But what are these firetech innovations, and do they really stand a chance in the face of fire fueled by climate change?

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I’m Annalisa Marelli, Nalis for short, and I’m the host of the season of the Quartz Obsession. Today, firetech, and the future of fighting wildfires.

I’m joined by Clarisa Diaz, a multimedia journalist at Quartz, who has long covered climate change and its consequences. In fact, she even lectures about it at Columbia University. She’s with me today to talk about firetech. Ciao Clarisa!

Clarisa: Hey Nalis.

Nalis: Thank you for joining me today to talk about wildfire technology. So, before we get into wildfire management technology or quote unquote “firetech,” let’s talk fire. Why do we have wildfires? You know, are they a new thing? Are they a human-made thing? Are they a natural thing?

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What causes wildfires?

Clarisa: I would say all the above. So, like, wildfires are a natural part of what nature does to maintain its own ecosystems. It’s also manmade. As we know, a lot of these wildfires are happening in areas between urban development and the wilderness. And that’s where we’re seeing a lot of fires start. There’s more manmade things that can ignite a fire, like power lines, transmission lines, and those sorts of things. And also because those areas are usually on lower elevations, they don’t really hold snow as long as you’d get snow up in the mountains. So those areas that are at lower elevations, they, because they don’t have as much snow, they’re warmer in temperature. And so they get more growth in their forests. So you get high-density vegetative matter that just fuels fires. And then of course we’re getting new fires, wildfires too, because of climate change and, kind of, you know, these warmer, drier conditions like drought, particularly in the West.

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Nalis: It seems to me that we hear a lot more about wildfires nowadays than we used to. Are they worse than they were in the past?

Are wildfires getting more dangerous?

Clarisa: They’re happening at higher frequency and more intensely than they have in the past. And also, throughout any time of year, really, even, um, Climate Central collected data to show that there are parts of the US that are experiencing fire weather more than twice as often, compared to what they were experiencing in the 1970s. And there’s also areas like in New Mexico that are seeing two months more of fire weather, and even some places seeing fire weather into the winter months. So it’s not just necessarily a summer thing anymore. And a lot of that is because of climate change and hotter temperatures. And, you know, a lot of that is also kind of just a lack of being able to properly manage forests because of these fires.

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There’s more excess vegetation that is maybe not being maintained either because a private landowner or a private business, like a timber or lumber business maybe, is no longer operating there, and so that forest is now not being maintained. Or they did clear-cutting that has created prairie instead of forest and allowed the fire to spread more rapidly. Or on the other end of the spectrum, you also can even see, you know, as environmental activists, we tend to, like, not want to cut down any trees. We want to save the trees, but by not doing anything to the forest, we’re allowing all that excess vegetation to build up and, and just fuel bigger and hotter fires.

Nalis: So what does a forest require to be healthy?

Clarisa: You know, in order for a forest to be healthy, it needs to have a diversity of vegetation in there. So that means young trees that hold a lot of water and moisture, along with old trees. And so these fires, you know, we would think of them as controlled fires that nature can do on its own, have, you know, actually maintained forests in the past by removing the sort of excess vegetation that gets collected on the ground and creating the conditions for new life to form in the forest that maintains the ecosystem balance of moisture in the air—we call that evaporative cooling—that allows forests to be cool and just overall healthy.

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Nalis: What are the trends that we’re seeing now with forest fires?

Clarisa: So, wildfires are not necessarily a bad thing historically, but I think what’s happening now, especially in the last few years, we’re starting to see an increase in what are called megafires, which are fires that burn over 100,000 acres. And, there are a couple of these happening in the 1980s and the 1990s, but really in the last 20 years is when we’ve actually seen megafires take off to the point where they’re not really cataloged anymore as unique or extreme events. And they’ve actually become quite common, particularly in California. The wildfire emissions in 2020 alone in California experts say essentially negated 18 years of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions for California, for the state.

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So, basically what’s happened now is that there’s this, like, kind of cycle of burning that’s happening now because you have these fires which just emit more CO2 into the atmosphere, which makes it hotter, which then causes more fires. So that’s how we get into the cycle of burning and this increase of megafires where we have fires that are maybe happening in locations that they’ve happened before, but are extending beyond into new areas, where they haven’t been seen.

Nalis: So taking a step back in history, what were some of the firefighting technologies that existed before the rise of quote unquote “firetech”?

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Clarisa: Yeah. So from what I understand from talking with experts, probably the biggest innovation that happened in the last hundred years, in the US, was after World War II, in terms of using technology to combat wildfires. It’s definitely not a new concept. But basically there was all of this surplus of aircraft, and that was all retrofitted for firefighting applications.

So some examples were aircraft that were turned into water bombers and some aircrafts that were turned into large retardant aircraft. So these were initially all retired military aircraft that were repurposed and would’ve otherwise gone to the scrapyard. So, that’s good that we were able to use that and find a new purpose for them.

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But you know, we still… I think we still use that technology to put out fires today. And it’s a little bit outdated at this point. It’s a little bit harder to maneuver. So some of this new technology that we’re seeing now in the firetech space is trying to use things like computer vision to create more precise accurate maneuvering of this aircraft in order to put out the fires.

Nalis: OK, so, but what is firetech and how did this industry even start?

Clarisa: So “firetech” is a relatively new term. It really only started in the past few years. It’s coined by folks in Silicon Valley who are working on these technologies, and also their investors, primarily Convective Capital.

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Nalis: So who funded Convective Capital? Where did that come from? And did they go out to companies and were like, “We got a problem, can you fix it?” Or were there companies that went to them and were like, “We need money. Create a fund that will give us money.”

Clarisa: So Bill Clerico is Convective’s managing partner, and he sold a company that he founded called WePay to JP Morgan in 2017. In the same year, him and his wife purchased a home in Mendocino County that was several hours north of San Francisco. They were in wildfire territory when that happened. He started having trouble getting insurance for his home, and he started thinking about this. He said it became “a shadow in his life,” and he wondered how new technology could help solve the problem. So, he’s created a new investment fund called Convective Capital that’s backed by a group of successful entrepreneurs. So it’s kind of a conglomeration of different business owners who have come together to raise money for this cause. And so far they’ve raised about $35 million to invest in the businesses they call firetech.

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The major players financing firetech

Nalis: And are they the only player investing in this kind of technology?

Clarisa: So, Convective Capital is one of the only, you know, venture capital firms that is specifically focused on technology for putting out wildfires—not only putting out wildfires, but the entire phase of prevention when the fire actually happens, and forest management.

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There are other groups that are also looking at new ways to finance these kinds of solutions. One of them is called Blue Forest. It’s another organization… they promote financial collaboration between the private sector, nonprofits, and the government. They have a flagship financial product called the Forest Resilience Bond, and that deploys private capital to finance forest restoration projects on private and public lands, in order to kind of reduce the risk of mega wildfires.

Nalis: So what are the technologies that are coming out right now that are key to this industry?

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Wildfire prevention vs. forest management

Clarisa: So we’re seeing technology startups that are tackling three different phases of the wildfire problem. One is the preventative stage, so being able to spot wildfires before they happen. The second is, when the wildfire is actually happening, being able to control it and decide whether or not it should be controlled or not. But being able to help put it out if it needs to be. And the third is just, you know, maintaining the forest and forest management skills for the long run, in order to, also in a way prevent unwanted wildfires from happening.

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Nalis: Does this work the way that I’m picturing it, that there’s actually robots coming in to save the day.

Clarisa: In some cases, yes, there are robots, but humans are still involved. Like having personnel—ground personnel—and people who can be on the ground is still important. It’s just that this technology might allow a more efficient deployment of those resources and be able to put them out of harm’s way.

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Nalis: Let’s now finally look at firetech. Let’s look at the robots. So what do these technologies do? Like, what do they look like? Like, do you have a few examples of interesting technologies that have already emerged?

The emerging fire-fighting technologies

Clarisa: Mmmhmm! So, yeah. So one we kind of touched on, that’s called Rain. Rain is a new startup that’s using computer vision technology, and they’re essentially retrofitting existing aircraft, like, the water bombers and the retardant aircrafts, but they’ve made them autonomous, using software. So not completely autonomous though, because the pilots are at a control center controlling them. But their pilots are not necessarily in the aircraft at the fire. So they’re using computer vision to kind of target where the fire is. And they claim that they’re able to maneuver it in a more precise way than a human pilot would be able to, because there’s a lot of variables that come into play when you’re trying to put out the fire in the air, there’s high winds. So maneuvering that and trying to get the right angle to put out the fire, uh, to spray the nozzle at, you know, there’s not a whole lot of room for error, so…

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Nalis: So they’re like… remote controlling airplanes. Sorry, I got a little bit stuck on that. So like they’re remote controlling the water bombs to go and be presumably also closer to the fires than a human pilot would like to be?

Clarisa: Yeah. Yes. They can get closer and they can be right over that fire, which probably a human pilot would be in, put into danger if they were in that position. But this is still, they’re still in testing phases, and they are going to test this year with real fires in San Mateo and San Bernardino counties in California. So we’ll have to see, you know, what happens with those tests and how successful they are this year. But they think that if they could have 200 takeoff and landing stations deployed across the state of California, that they would be able to end catastrophic wildfires in the state by 2030. That’s kind of this… that’s the startup goal. So it’s pretty ambitious, but you know, it seems like a noble effort.

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Nalis: And so they don’t need full airports or like, you know, full ramps. Like is it like, slightly smaller?

Clarisa: Yeah, more like a launchpad if you think about, like, a helicopter launchpad. Yeah. Yeah, because they’re retrofitting existing aircraft, so…

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Nalis: You mentioned in the past, when we were talking about this, that there are technologies that also help with the actual cleaning up of the forest and, you know, getting rid of the dry matter that is feeding the wildfires.

Clarisa: Yeah, so a lot of the technology that I’ve been hearing about from, people at Convective Capital (and others) is this more… in the preventative stage before wildfire starts. So one piece of technology is called the BurnBot. And it kind of looks like a piece of agricultural equipment but it basically… it kind of, you know, moves through, through land like a tractor would, but it’s not as big as a tractor.

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Nalis: So what does the BurnBot actually look like though?

Clarisa: It kind of looks like a Zamboni.

Nalis: A what?

Clarisa: A Zamboni. It’s like an ice resurfacer. It’s like kind of a vehicle or a hand push device that can clean and smooth out the surface of ice at, like, ice rinks.

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Nalis: Oh, did I think that it was a type of cold cut, or did I not think that, is the question? I was like, “Is that, like, a big prosciutto?” OK, so it’s like, it’s on wheels.

Clarisa: It’s on wheels. Yes.

Nalis: Oh, OK. OK.

Clarisa: But if you think about the concept, like, it’s, like, sweeping the ground, like maybe like a Roomba would, but, like, for the forest. Yeah.

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Nalis: And where does it put the debris? Does it absorb it? Like does it vacuum it or it just…

Clarisa: Yeah, so the BurnBot, it only burns what is underneath the bot. So it has these, basically this array of high temperature torches. And the flames and the embers are fully contained within the robot. So as it’s sweeping, it’s like sucking up… or it’s torching and then sucking up the debris, almost like a vacuum cleaner. I guess you could think of it that way, too.

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Nalis: And is it able to, you know, cover enough of a surface to be effective?

Clarisa: So it needs to make, I think it needs to make passes through the landscape. But the good thing about this BurnBot, like the positive thing about what it can do that maybe other technology hasn’t been able to do is that it is able, because it’s like, you know, relatively small, it can get close to areas where houses are. Like, it can get into those, like, smaller in-between spaces where fires can start.

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Nalis: I wonder in the future whether this will become some kind of regular fire department tools in their arsenal. Like, you know, we’ll have our little BurnBot mascot and our little Rain pad is over there and, you know, just kind of like integrating these new technologies in what firefighters use.

Clarisa: Yeah, that’s a great idea. Yeah, that would be fun. And also I think that is kind of like… the long-term vision is like you would have a, you know, a toolkit essentially of like these different things at your disposal that you could use as a department to deploy. Yeah.

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Nalis: So, what else would we add to it? So we have the BurnBot. Love the name. We have the former water bomb, now turned Rain. Is there anything else that already exists that we would want to, that I, wildfire management department, wanna purchase from firetech?

Applying AI technology

Clarisa: So another technology that I think is building a lot of traction is Pano AI. And so those are essentially, you know, little round cameras that are on top of towers that are watching the landscape for smoke plumes. And it uses AI to measure the smoke plumes and how they’re growing. If it looks like it’s a wildfire that could become a problem, it automatically will, like, connect to satellite data, GPS data, and alert the fire department the exact location where that fire is and provide them with footage, real time camera footage, so that they can watch it themselves. The fire chief can actually watch that fire and see how it’s developing.

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Nalis: Because when, like, by the time it becomes visible to the closest humans, maybe it’s too close.

Clarisa: Yeah, exactly. So like, the way it works now or has worked is just, like, a person sees smoke on the horizon and they call 911, which you know, is also important to still do, but the fire department may not know exactly where that fire is and they’re going to have to… it’s going to take them time to figure out where it is and if it is something that they need to be worried about.

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So, we actually don’t have a whole lot of data about wildfires, like, in the first 30 minutes, when they start. So that’s another benefit of Pano AI is that, you know, they’re actually able to now create this kind of database of what happens from the moment that fire starts, to when it’s extinguished or, you know, the entire kind of life cycle of that fire.

Nalis: So the idea with this AI is that you can build reference points to guide how you handle a fire instead of just kind of waiting to see how it develops.

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Clarisa: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And not just that, but also, you know, a lot of it’s depending on the location, through the mapping of it that Pano AI can provide to show them where are our utilities, where is, you know, important infrastructure in that area so that they can know whether or not there’s something that’s at risk of being in the path of the fire.

Nalis: So what are some common misconceptions that people may have about firetech?

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Clarisa: So there’s two parts, I think, to this that I think are important. One is that, I think a misconception that people—some people—tend to have is like, “Oh, this is just Silicon Valley throwing gadgets at a problem.” But I think we probably need to look at it more than just these gadgets. I mean, I think a lot of new technology products start out that way, but then they evolve with time into a service. And so if we think about, like, you know…”What are the, maybe, the not so visible ways that this technology can help the problem?” is a really good way to look at it in terms of the new data that we’re able to get from that.

I think one of the things to be wary about, like, from talking to people about, you know, some of these new companies that are coming up is: How do you know that you’re not sort of being greenwashed by some of these startups? And I think, you know, one point is to look at, you know, what kind of data are they using? Like, what’s their sources? How are they collecting their data? Can you really, you know, make a prediction for climate risk in 30 years for an insurance company, if you’re just getting new data right now? It’s a question. Maybe you don’t have that data right now. You know? Also I think when, from what I’ve heard, like, if a startup is willing to talk about, you know, where their technology doesn’t work, like, that’s a good sign, because there’s not going to be, like, a blanket technology that’s gonna work everywhere. So, if a company is claiming that they have the all-in-one solution to everything, that’s kind of a red flag. So I think, like, these are just some ways to kind of, spot out, like, what might be more viable versus not viable.

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Nalis: So the technology here is clearly very useful, but I’m also wondering with people living so close to forests, if these disasters are kind of inevitable. So what’s the best way to prevent them? Is it firetech, or is it maybe not building houses near the forest?

Clarisa: Yeah. I think the answer is probably both, because I think a lot of it, you know, depends on people who live in certain areas and in their community and, you know, what are the choices that they want to make? I mean, I think the discussion of managed retreat for a lot of different climate threats around the country are happening. And I think some people will probably have already moved out, but I think that, you know, even if we don’t live there, I think still having the ability to restore forests and the ability to maintain them in a more effective way, I think, is still necessary.

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So, I think that, you know, whether you choose to live by a forest or not, you know, I think this technology does offer some new ideas about how we can kind of take our agency back, and not have to feel a little helpless. Like, “Oh, there’s so… there’s all these fires happening, everything’s burning. Like, I can’t live here.” You know? And, you know, maybe this is a way to kind of break through that fear and kind of take this agency back, in order to be able to live with nature.

Nalis: OK, so, say in a matter of decades, we stop climate change. We’ve got carbon capture technology that works, and our planet is in better shape. Without the apocalyptic odds, is the firetech industry suddenly obsolete? Uh, will the money dry up?

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Clarisa: So I think it still goes back to the idea of, you know, being able to have more robust forest management and having these tools at your disposal. So I think, you know, whether or not we have a megafire crisis, that is still gonna be useful for these companies. I also think, like, there are so many companies joining this space now and, you know, we know that with startup technology culture that, you know, not all of these companies are going to survive. So that is part of the challenge, I think, to figure out, you know, which of these are actually, scalable and useful in the long term.

From talking to folks at Blue Forest and other experts, you know, I do get the sense that, like, nobody is really sure how to measure that success. You know, because you can put a lot of funding towards something, but maybe there’s no way to maintain it or update it. And that’s, like, a long term problem that before you launch any kind of tool—new tool—you know, how is that—what’s the long term strategy of that tool’s life in the space? Who pays for it? How do you make that financially sustainable? Right now, you know, we have government contracts and grants and we have private businesses. So those are kind of our three ways of being able to have funds for this. So, you know, does it become a collaboration between these groups, or do they take different approaches and then ultimately who gets to make the decision about what tools end up being deployed? Is there any kind of consistent way to measure that? I think those are all questions that we don’t have the answers to right now. But there are things to keep in mind. As this technology develops, as firetech continues and we see more companies enter the space.

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Nalis: My last question for you is… do you think the term “firetech” should be changed to something that doesn’t sound like it’s going to come at you with a hoodie and ask for a 10-time return?

Clarisa: I mean do we call it firetech? I mean, wildfire technology, I think, is a term that’s been used before. But if you just want a quick, catchy word, I guess for when you’re in Silicon Valley… and firetech seems to be the word that they’ve chosen. I’m OK with it, I guess. Yeah. How about you?

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Nalis: I don’t know. I mean, it kind of, like, makes me think of like the technology of fire. You know? It doesn’t make me think, like, “You put out fires but like you’re, you know, you’re out there “creating better and more effective fires.” You know, like, “disrupting fires” or something. Like, it just feels like it’s a little bit out there.

But yeah! Thank you so much, Clarisa. This was, uh, really interesting and, uh, and educative. I’m so pleased that you came to share this with us.

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Clarisa: Oh, thanks for having me.

Nalis: And that’s our Obsession. The Quartz Obsession is a podcast hosted by Nalis Merelli. Katie Jane Fernelius is our producer, and George Drake mixes and does sound design. Music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira.

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Additional production support provided by multiplatform editor extraordinaire, Susan Howson, research wizard Julia Malleck, and audience insight genius Ashley Webster. Shivank Taksali and Diego Lasarte are natural-born sound engineers. Special thanks to our wonderful guest Quartz multimedia reporter, Clarisa Diaz: in favor of the term “firetech.”

Nalis: If you like what you heard, please review this on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Tell your friends about us, then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email, and browse hundreds of interesting backstories.

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Support for this episode comes from EYGS LLP. © 2023 EYGM Limited. All Rights Reserved.