Venture

As Wildfires Burn Through California, Here’s What Startups Are Doing

Last year, over 1 million acres of land were burned due to wildfires in California and 93 fatalities occurred. So far in 2019, over 240,000 acres of land have burned across over 5,600 fires.

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As you process that, Davida Herzl, the CEO of Aclima, has been doing the same. For a decade. Herzl has silently spent years working on better understanding air quality to reduce emissions on a hyper local scale. It was a category she deemed was a “far off application.”

Then, California was met with three back to back years of historically destructive fires.

“Now, all of a sudden, in increased frequency in pace and scale of fires, we’re having to respond,” Herzl said.

Air quality becomes even more pressing after a wildfire is underway, for the safety of public health. As news of enormous, fast-spreading forest fires and breathing in smoky air becomes a repeatable occurrence, a group of startups are working to make technology that better understands the blazes through data, remote technologies, and artificial intelligence.

Data, The Cloud, And Some Sensors

Sometimes, the beginning of these fires are as simple as a flicked cigarette butt, or a downed power line. But containment requires the understanding of a not-so-simple truth: fires are ever-changing and expanding. That means that technology and innovation are needed to combat them.

First and foremost, there are no startups on the ground fighting fires, from our count. There are, however, startups offering tools to the people who do: firefighters.

Zonehaven, for example, consulted over a dozen fire chiefs in the Bay Area for its advanced fire modeling map. The San Francisco-based startup recently got investment from Splunk, a data services company, for its data to aid fire departments and emergency response agencies in combating fires.

Outside the Bay, there’s Bellingham, Wash.-based Emergency Reporting, which has cloud-based reporting and management support for Fire and EMS agencies. There’s also Lincoln, Neb.-based Drone Amplified, which claims it makes fire management technology safer and more affordable for everyone from state agencies protecting public lands to singular landowners.

Let’s circle back to Aclima.

Founder Herzl told me her company is sending out a fleet of roving sensors for air quality measurement, so that “by next wildfire season [they’ll] have block by block data to protect public health.”

She added that even within the same block, the air quality can range due to pollution. For that reason, high technology sensors are needed to account for multiple data points.

Aclima is also working with another San Francisco-based startup, Firefly, which has digital advertisements atop ride-sharing vehicles.

The pilot “will integrate air quality sensors into [Firefly] screens to provide real-time insights into city conditions, producing essential data for city leaders and nonprofit groups for planning and decision-making,” according to a statement from Gregory Stock, director of public affairs and partnerships at Firefly.

While all the startups are working for the public good, sometimes when tackling a public service sector it is difficult to grow in the first place. For example, Aclima had to bootstrap before raising a Series A, announced last year. In the next section, we’ll talk about the obstacles when adding innovation into current techniques used to combat wildfires.

When Your Partner Is Your Competition

First off, according to Zonehaven CEO Charlie Crocker, the “SaaS subscription model is new to many local government agencies and requires additional education to help articulate the value of the SaaS model.” That’s a roadblock for the company, since it is a SaaS model.

All things considered, we’re seeing inklings of innovation, even if not from private market startups. For example, most recently the $4.5 million  Fire Integrated Real Time System (FIRIS) was launched with California Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris championing the initiative. FIRIS, using a camera atop an aircraft, provides real-time and infrared video to help decisions be made within five minutes of recognizing a fire. The system has already been implemented in the Tenaja fire this year. It is currently undergoing a 150 day pilot.

We reached out to both California Governor Gavin Newsom and San Francisco Mayor London Breed for this article and did not get a response.

Aclima’s Herzl believes that the tech and government communities have to work together.

“Historically, there’s been sort of fear or nervousness about working with governments. And I think if you’re really solving big problems that affect society, and that affects the future of society, we have to have the technology community… work with governments in partnership.”

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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