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Firefighters enlist high-tech tools to stave off the West’s increasingly destructive blazes

September 30, 2021, 9:00 AM UTC

As the Dixie FireCalifornia’s second-largest ever—burned through more than 960,000 acres of forest and brush this summer, firefighters mobilized with the same tools they have used for decades: water hoses, chain saws, and airplanes carrying fire retardant. 

But this year they had an additional weapon in their arsenal: high-tech maps showing where the fire would likely go next. The maps, accessible on computers and tablets, were based on millions of climate and topographic data points, such as weather, wind patterns, and the type of vegetation in the area. 

The idea is to help commanders leading the battle make better decisions about where to deploy fire crews and whom to evacuate. While this fire season has been unusually long and destructive in the state, the information has helped keep it from spiraling further out of control. “We’re having longer, hotter, drier summers, and the end result is these mega fires,” says Jon Heggie, a battalion chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. “It’s great that we have a computer program that can tell us how big the fire’s going to get,” he adds, while cautioning that firefighters must still do the dirty work of extinguishing the flames. 

Over the past few years, firefighters have increasingly enlisted tech to help them get an upper hand against wildfires. In addition to sophisticated mapping, they are using artificial intelligence to spot new fires and drones that start backfires to combat raging infernos. 

The tech push comes after California, along with much of the West, has experienced a succession of devastating fire seasons. This year is already California’s second worst, with more than 2.2 million acres burned.

Nearly real-time predictions about fire behavior are a big change from the relatively ad hoc systems used by firefighters in the past. Joaquin Ramirez, founder of Technosylva, the startup that provides the mapping technology used in California, was in his mid-twenties when he experienced his first wildland fire in 1994. He was working for the Spanish government coordinating aerial resources to fight what was that country’s worst fire ever. But the tools he was given to predict the fire’s spread weren’t exactly up-to-date: “The maps that we used were the maps the U.S. Air Force made of Spain—in 1957,” Ramirez recalls. 

FIR.11.21.Technosylva-square
Technosylva’s maps show where fires are headed, helping firefighters better prepare.
Courtesy of Technosylva

Chooch AI, another startup, works to help spot wildfires more quickly so that firefighters can be deployed while a fire is still tiny. It uses cameras affixed to drones and installed in existing fire lookout towers—the kind that used to be manned by humans—to monitor for smoke. 

The live images are sent via the Internet for analysis by Chooch’s systems, which have been trained to recognize smoke based on video footage from past infernos. The technology also factors in other elements, like the presence of cars or people, to determine whether a fire is a threat or something to be ignored, like a campfire. After deciding that action is warranted, the system alerts authorities by email. The company already operates in Turkey, where it monitors 15 locations with 380 cameras, and, as soon as October, will start providing alerts to California’s National Guard. 

Controlled burns, used as a preventive measure against fires and to stop much larger ones from advancing, are another traditional firefighting strategy that tech is reinventing. Drone Amplified sells drone attachments that carry as many as 400 Ping-Pong–size balls filled with combustible chemicals. When the drones reach their target area, the pilot controlling them from afar presses a button so that the aircraft drop their payloads and start small fires. Because wildfires are often in rugged terrain, using drones for the job lets firefighters react more quickly while minimizing the risk of injury. The system is already being used by the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service. 

Despite the increased attention to firefighting tech, investment in the sector remains relatively tiny. During the past few years, venture capitalists plowed only about $100 million to $200 million into companies focused on wildfire management, says Bilal Zuberi, a partner at Lux Capital, which has invested in makers of drones that are deployed after disasters. That amount is minuscule compared with the $300 billion that VCs invested last year globally, according to accounting firm KPMG. The muted enthusiasm, Zuberi says, results in part from the low likelihood of a big payoff from fire tech and an aversion to the slow government contracting process. 

One company that received $5.5 million in funding, led by well-known investment firm Andreessen Horowitz, is Fire Maps. The newly-formed company uses drones to film houses and create 3-D images of the properties to help pinpoint spots that are particularly vulnerable to fire. It then connects homeowners with contractors who can clear vegetation and install fire safety features like ember-resistant gutters.

Despite the new emphasis on fire tech, Heggie, the Cal Fire battalion chief, said that more is needed. He hopes for better communication equipment for firefighters, who often rely on radio systems that can be spotty. “Here’s the reality: We work in some of the most remote locations in California, and getting radio coverage in those areas sometimes is a challenge,” he says, emphasizing that this view is his own, and not that of Cal Fire.

It’s unclear whether tech innovations will have more than a marginal effect on managing fires and reducing the destruction they cause. A key problem is the increasing construction of homes in dry, fire-prone areas. Climate change, which has contributed to drought and hotter temperatures across much of the West, is another. (For more on the economic impact of California’s wildfires, see “Getting burned: Battles over the cost of climate change are scorching California homeowners,” also from this issue.)

Ultimately, successfully dousing fires hinges on traditional firefighting techniques and not whiz-bang tech, says Michael Thomas, a professor with the fire protection program at California State University, Los Angeles, and a former battalion chief with the Los Angeles Fire Department. “By and large, the most effective fire suppression agent is still water, particularly water hoses that are advanced by crews,” he says. “And then, of course, water drop capabilities from the sky to hit the head of the fire when it’s moving aggressively.” 

New tools for tackling fire

Firefighters and, to a lesser extent, homeowners can use recently developed technology to help protect life and property.

Predictions

Digital maps showing where fires will likely go next help firefighters better plan their attack. The predictions are a product of A.I., which factors in weather and topographic data.  

Fire spotting

Companies like Chooch AI feed video from cameras installed on drones and lookout towers into A.I. that can spot smoke. Fire managers get an alert if the tech detects a potential inferno. 

New fire retardants

Fire retardants have long been used to stop fires that are already burning. Now a new generation of retardant has been developed that is spread proactively to prevent fires from even starting—potentially for months. Studies are mixed, however, on whether such retardants are effective. 

Controlled fires 

Instead of hiking into remote areas to start controlled burns, firefighters can now send a drone modified by Drone Amplified. The drones drop combustible “dragon balls” to start fires. The idea is to help firefighters avoid injury and control wildfires faster. 

Home protection

Homeowners seeking to better fireproof their properties can enlist Fire Maps, which uses drones to create 3D images of houses and terrain to pinpoint vulnerabilities. The company then connects homeowners with contractors to fix any problems.

A version of this article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Tech’s fire fight.”

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