Fighting bigger blazes with Silicon Valley technology

Startup Lumineye began with a goal of giving soldiers power to see through walls. But climate change has broadened the market, and Lumineye is now working with firefighters to tweak its product — a hand-held device that uses radar to see people inside buildings and in thick brush.

“Unfortunately, the more often fires are occurring, the more we’ll be focused on that use case,” said Megan Lacy, co-founder and co-CEO of the company birthed from a class that grew out of a Stanford University entrepreneurship initiative.

California’s drought, plus forests full of fuels and communities along narrow roads in heavily treed areas make for a lethal recipe, tragically exemplified by the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 86 people in Paradise. With scientists agreeing that climate change will make wildfires increasingly catastrophic, the specter of flames devouring communities and smothering the state in smoke is driving innovation, much of it in Silicon Valley, to fight fires with new technology.

Last year, a wall of fire swept down from the Santa Cruz Mountains toward tech-industry guru Steve Blank’s palatial home overlooking the ocean south of Pescadero. His house remains standing thanks to what he calls the heroism of Cal Fire’s ground forces, who helped him fight the flames to within a foot of his home. But if California does not aggressively implement new technologies, Blank believes, much of the Bay Area and the rest of California will be left in smoky ruins.

“You’re looking for force multipliers,” said Blank, who invests in Rain, a Palo Alto startup making retardant-dropping drones. “How do we fight this exponential growth (in wildfires) without exceeding the gross domestic product of California?”

Blank imagines a future where satellites detect fires as soon as they start and artificial intelligence software dispatches firefighting drones. That Blank would propose a Silicon Valley solution featuring AI and flying robots is perhaps unsurprising. He’s an influential startup expert who teaches at UC Berkeley and Stanford University — his “Hacking for Defense” class at Stanford grew into a national program that produced Lumineye.

And Blank’s vision appears to be getting closer to reality every day. Cal Fire and other agencies have begun using AI, satellites and drones, and are examining other cutting-edge solutions.

San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey noted that not long ago, fire chiefs relied mostly on paper maps and ink markers. “The technology adoption we’ve seen over the last three years has exploded,” Munsey said.

During the Santa Cruz Mountains fire last year, one in a series of huge blazes sparked by dry lightning, Bay Area startup Zonehaven’s map-based evacuation software for official and citizen use went live in what CEO Charlie Crocker described as “our trial by fire.”

Zonehaven was founded in 2018, and already, Cal Fire and dozens of other agencies and local governments — including Santa Clara, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Alameda counties — are adopting it to coordinate the safe exodus of people from threatened areas. The public app shows residents where they are on a map, with evacuation status — from advisory to warning to order — shown by the coloring of their zone.

“If you were to really boil down what is the real issue in what I call the era of the mega-fires, it’s evacuations,” said Cal Fire’s Santa Clara County unit Chief Jake Hess.

Last year’s fires torched a record 4.3 million acres in California, and this year, 85% of California is in extreme drought. Seven major wildfires were already burning last week across the state.

At Rain, which is trying to sell service contracts for its drones to Cal Fire and other agencies, CEO Maxwell Brodie believes that while traditional firefighting methods are crucial they are insufficient in the face of more and bigger fires. “It doesn’t matter how many people or aircraft or tankers you throw at the problem, our solutions do not scale,” he said. “A significant challenge integrating new technology into fire operations is overcoming the ways things have always been.”

In the Menlo Park Fire District, Chief Harold Schapelhouman oversees a fleet of 30 camera-bearing drones he says could provide valuable eyes in the sky during wildfires, including at night and in smoke and weather conditions that ground choppers and planes. Cal Fire’s use of drones for landscape and damage surveys is a good step, he believes, but the agency’s safety rules don’t allow him to launch his drones during wildfires, even flying low enough to not threaten firefighting aircraft. “Take the handcuffs off,” he said. “Let us fly.”

Capella Space, a San Francisco company that has four satellites in orbit that can provide detailed landscape photos day or night, through clouds or smoke, plans to pitch its services to Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service so the agencies could “provide rapid information to the people on the ground to ensure that when they go into an area they know what to expect,” said Dan Getman, vice-president of product.

Stanford University materials science professor Eric Appel, who led development of a fire-stopping gel for roadsides, said caution about new firefighting technology is warranted “because people have also been trying to sell snake oil in this field for a long time.” While Cal Fire’s emergency funding in 2020-21 skyrocketed from an initial $360 million to more than $1 billion by the end of 2020 — paying for more firefighters and aircraft — money for new technologies is comparatively scarce, said Appel.

Phillip SeLegue, deputy chief of Cal Fire’s Intel unit, said the agency is responding to technological change along with environmental change and pointed to its adoption of data-processing platform Technosylva, which forecasts, monitors, and predicts fires and their spread. His colleague Hess described the software as “a technological shot in the arm.” Cal Fire has also received real-time imagery from U.S. military drones, and invested heavily in a widespread system of forest cameras, Hess noted.

The agency gets other feeds from classified Pentagon sources and from satellites that detect ignitions and allow ongoing fire assessment in nearly real-time, all visible on the Technosylva platform along with the ALERT camera views, SeLegue said.

Artificial intelligence software that processes imagery from Cal Fire aircraft and sends it to ground commanders to show fire locations should be in full use this year, SeLegue added. The agency plans to align with the U.S. Forest Service in using drones to ignite controlled burns to block fire spread, and is working with NASA on integrating autonomous drones into firefighting, potentially to carry people and supplies, provide communication links, or even drop retardant, he said.

Whether technology can save us amid California’s warming climate remains to be seen. Many communities in the Oakland and Berkeley hills, or in Woodside, Los Gatos, Felton and Bonny Doon, are nestled in forests and have limited escape routes. “It’s really just a dice game,” Stanford’s Appel said. “The more big catastrophic fires we have, the greater chance that we have another Paradise.”

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