Tim Barat, the co-founder of Gridware, a utility monitoring startup, says the first slide of his pitch dek to investors is a mirror. “Look outside the window,” he tells potential Silicon Valley investors. “That’s your problem. It’s wildfire.” He then asks them if they’ve been impacted by fire in recent years. Being Bay Area venture capitalists, the answer is always yes.
“That makes that very easy to pitch,” Barat said.
Gridware is part of a rapidly increasing segment of the tech industry specifically focused on wildfires. These companies come from traditional Silicon Valley backgrounds and often have origin stories that date to between 2017 to 2020, when the founders or their loved ones personally experienced the effect of wildfires.
For his part, Barat’s story is slightly different. A native Australian, he remembers Black Saturday in February 2009, when a heat wave and high winds resulted in hundreds of brush fires, ultimately killing 173 people. He started Gridware in 2020 after moving to California in the 2010s and attending UC Berkeley. He saw a market finally ready to take wildfire prevention seriously.
Gridware sells devices that attach to electrical utility boxes so that utility companies can tell what condition their wires, poles, and transformers are in. The idea is that with this information, utility companies can act proactively to prevent a fire from starting. Until last year, the company’s slogan was “Creating a future where suburban wildfires are a thing of the past,” but Barat says they changed it after expanding into markets where wildfires aren’t a concern.
“We were leveraging the urgency of wildfires,” he told Motherboard. The slogan is now “Protecting the grid today, preparing the grid for tomorrow.”
Companies like Gridware are making the argument they can reduce the number of catastrophic wildfires through technology—products or services they can sell to utilities, insurance companies, or large landowners like governments or forestry companies that use internet-connected devices, supply chain management, and artificial intelligence to detect wildfires before they burn out of control. “What I discovered is a lot of focus on wildfire being a problem. I think that this is a mistake, because I don't think wildfire is the problem,” Barat said. “I think it's a symptom or an outcome of core problems. And it spans many, many different things.”
These companies take a narrow view of what technology is—computers and chips, cameras and algorithms, the internet and telecommunications—and how it can make our lives better and solve problems. But the history of technological innovation is far more vast, encompassing time-tested methods for altering humanity’s environment in a way that eases the strain on the natural environment rather than exacerbating it. Among these are proven technological processes, such as intentional, prescribed burnings in forests across the western United States, that we’ve abandoned in the last century. Wildfire experts are in unanimous agreement this is not only a key reason why the wildfire problem has gotten out of control, but also a contributing factor to declining biological diversity and drought conditions as overgrowth sucks up water before it reaches creeks and rivers. As vast sums are spent and new technologies are developed, a central issue is a refusal to act on evidence that old technologies provide a basis for a far more viable and proven method for preventing catastrophic wildfires.
“I would suggest,” said Dave Calkin, a researcher for the U.S. Forest Service who has been researching forest fire management for more than 20 years, “that fire management is more a social than a technological problem.”
Gridware is one of several portfolio companies for Convective Capital, a venture capital firm specifically focused on wildfires. It was co-founded by Bill Clerico, who founded the payments app WePay which sold for a reported $400 million to JPMorgan in 2017. Clerico said he started paying closer attention to the wildfire problem in 2019 when he was set to take his family from their San Francisco home to their second house in rural Mendocino County north of San Francisco. He learned a wildfire threatened to cut across the six-mile access road leading up to his house. In the end, the fire did not cut off access to the road, but the experience stuck with him.
“It wasn't like we were fleeing for our lives or anything like that,” Clerico told Motherboard. “But it was still a very sort of personal, disruptive, scary experience.”
After 12 years of “doing payments,” he was ready for work that felt more meaningful. And he wanted it to be related to climate change. After that near miss in 2019, Clerico started volunteering for his local fire department in Mendocino County during Covid. And the more he learned, the more he thought technology could help with the wildfire problem. He saw problems of information sharing, coordination, asset management, and other domains the tech industry has long been specializing in.
“One of the interesting things about wildfire,” Clerico said, “is, I think over the next five years, we can actually have a pretty measurable impact on it if we make some changes in how we live with it.”
Last year, with $35 million in investor funding, Clerico started Convective Capital, aiming to “solve” the global wildfire crisis, according to the firm’s website. Among its portfolio are companies that monitor vegetation near power lines, deploy drones to put out fires, and cameras that use algorithms to try and automatically detect wildfires. He sees these businesses as attractive to governments trying to manage the wildfire problem, but also insurance companies getting slammed with wildfire-related claims, forestry companies losing inventory, and utilities exposed to billions of dollars in lawsuits if they’re found responsible for a fire. The idea, Clerico said, is “if we can incubate new tools and technologies that ultimately end up in the hands of practitioners and people that can and are working on this problem, we increase the effectiveness of their work, and therefore, the impact on the problem.”
Clerico described himself as an optimist, a passenger on a “10-plus year journey” to reduce extreme wildfires. A part of that program, he thinks, will be figuring out how to build more, better, safer housing near forests.
“We’re not building any more housing in San Francisco,” he said, which is true and a problem in and of itself the state is desperately trying to address. “So where are we going to build it? If we don’t make these rural communities safer, where are people going to live? So I think it has to be figured out. I don’t think we’re going to reverse this trend of people moving into more rural areas to find affordable housing. So we need to help them do that safely.” He thinks there are ways to do that, but “we just don’t have them yet.”
One of Clerico’s portfolio companies is Pano, which uses cameras and AI to detect wildfires. “There is a boom and bust in the climate tech industry,” said Sonia Kastner, founder of Pano. She started working in climate tech in 2007, attracted from her job in the Michael Bloomberg administration in New York City because of the “speed and innovation” in the private sector.
This was the cresting of the Move Fast and Break Things wave. At the time, she and others in the climate tech sector “hoped to prevent climate change,” as she put it. One of the firms she worked for, Alta Devices, made solar panels and set solar efficiency records, but the larger goal went unrealized. “If you fast forward 15 years,” Kastner said, “it’s clear we have not prevented climate change.”
After working in the “Internet of Things,” most notably for Nest, the smart home company that Google bought for $3.2 billion in 2014, Kastner hadn’t lost a desire to help with climate change. She thought “could I take advantage of the technologies that I was familiar with in Silicon Valley to help the emergency management industry to marshal a better response to natural disasters?” What if, instead of using Nest cameras to monitor your baby or see who is at the door, there were lots of Nest cameras all over the world to detect and identify wildfires before they became destructive?
The company claims it uses artificial intelligence to identify potential wildfires and then alert local authorities. Kasnter said the AI cannot reliably detect the difference between smoke and clouds, so all alerts are reviewed by humans before triggering an alert so they don’t spam fire officials with false positives. There is a free tier available to any fire official who wants it that notifies them of new fires, but to get the company’s advanced, time-lapse cameras and mapping technology, they must pay a subscription fee.
“An analogy we always talk about is cancer detection,” Kastner said. “Catch the cancer at stage one, hit it with really aggressive treatment, and never allow it to get to stage four.”
There are three main reasons why wildfires are getting more severe and destructive. First, climate change is making the fire season longer and drier. Second, we drastically increased development in wildfire-prone areas, particularly over the last 50 years, increasing both the likelihood humans will cause a wildfire and the likelihood a wildfire will lead to the destruction of property.
The third reason is we don’t have enough fires.
“Fire is the cure for a sick land that is sick because of lack of fire,” said Margo Robbins, executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council, which utilizes proven burning methods on the Yurok Reservation and Ancestral lands along the Klamath River in the northwestern corner of California. “And it is the purposeful use of fire that is going to make it healthy again.”
Every wildfire startup I spoke to knows this. A few are even attempting to address this problem directly with drones or bots that create fire rather than put it out, a kind of application of technology the experts I spoke to are particularly excited about because it addresses a difficult and urgent problem.
Ten years ago, a representative from the California Endowment for Building Healthy Communities, a 10-year, $1 billion project by a private nonprofit, came to the Yurok Reservation and in a series of community meetings asked the people what they needed. There were many problems to address, Robbins said. “There’s drugs, there’s alcohol, there’s suicide, there’s low to no employment,” all disproportionately prevalent issues among Native Americans. But when they held the vote on what issue to address, they voted to bring fire back to the land.
For the vast majority of the last 100 years, it has been illegal for anyone, Native American or otherwise, to burn in California. Only six states—Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, and Montana—have no laws on the books providing for civil or criminal liability for open fires in wildland without a permit. Karuk and Yurok tribes practiced burning for tens of thousands of years. Among other things, they made baskets out of the hazelnut trees, which can only be made from the burned branches of the trees; unburned branches are too inflexible. Baskets, Robbins said, are critical to their culture. The baskets are baby carriers, eating bowls, cooking pots, and used in prayer ceremonies. Girls wear basket hats. Fire under the oak trees also rids the acorns of weevils, preventing infestations. Without fire, firs grow and crowd out the oaks, preventing acorn growth.
Traditionally, the tribes burned a piece of land every three to ten years, as the land needs to rest before it can be burned again. But European colonizers made laws banning burning and suppressing every fire they saw. The very first session of the California Legislature in 1850 mandated fires be put out and not started. By 1935, the U.S. Forest Service set a deadline of 10 a.m. to put out any fires the morning after they were first reported. And for the last 100 years, virtually all official efforts regarding wildfires have been focused on how to put them out. Hardly any burning occurred at all, although Robbins says there is one old lady who would rather get thrown in jail than stop making baskets.
The Yurok community were also aware, Robbins said, that they lived in “a tinderbox.” The reservation snakes along the Klamath River with steep hillsides on each side. Without the burning, vegetation became impassibly thick. Combined with rising temperatures and droughts, this forms an incredibly dangerous condition for wildfires to get out of control fast.
For most of the last century, the U.S. government and many states have had explicit policies to put out all fires as quickly as possible while doing no prescribed fires, or controlled fires started by fire experts. As a result, there is a lot more vegetation than there used to be, and vegetation is fire fuel. More fuel means bigger fires that are more likely to get out of control and cause vast, toxic clouds that float around the globe. As a rule of thumb, Calkin of the Forest Service said, places that burn frequently don’t burn as severely, and places that burn infrequently usually burn severely. Over the last 100 years, the western United States has become a place that burned infrequently because humans put out every fire we could.
“Our forests are to a large part like a hoarder’s house,” Robbins said. “It’s becoming practically non-functional.”
After they voted to bring back fire, Robbins and her fellow volunteers started researching the patchwork of laws and regulations that govern fire. The Yurok Reservation is on tribal trust land, which is governed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and private land, which is governed by Cal Fire regulations. If they want to burn between May and October on private land, they have to get a permit from Cal Fire. There are also smoke permits that need to be acquired. People starting and tending the fire need entry level fire qualifications. There needs to be a burn boss and a holding boss. And they need to have a burn plan for each fire, which has to be submitted to the relevant authorities. Generally, Robbins says, burning on BIA land is much harder than on private land. It typically takes about three months to organize a burn, which is considered relatively short in the prescribed burn world.
The tribe burns in a technologically advanced manner that has since been adopted by firefighters, but only during extreme wildfire events as they seek to burn ahead of out-of-control fires to remove fuel. First, they prime the land by cutting low-lying vegetation, clearing it from nearby healthy trees so they don’t burn, and piling the understory. They start at the top of the hill and burn a line across the hillside until the fire break, or a gap in the understory. When that burns out, they move down the hillside, start another burn, which burns up the hill until it reaches the part that had already burned. Repeat, repeat, repeat. This way, burns are very unlikely to get out of control—there is a 100-foot hose and a portable pool of water with thousands of gallons standing by in case a stray spark jumps the fire lane—but most every tree remains untouched by the flames.
Over time, and thanks in part to a partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the Council has been able to steadily increase the amount of burns it does each year. Firefighters pay to participate in the burn to earn professional qualifications. The money goes to paying locals to help survey and prepare for the fire. The first few years they burned only a few acres per season. Until last year, they could burn a maximum of about 30 acres in a day. Now, they can burn about 80 acres in a single burn.
Since they’ve started burning again, the forest has become passable. Light reaches the soil, which has been fertilized by the fire, promoting growth. A staff botanist studied areas pre-and-post burn, finding that in a single 100-foot diameter circle, 87 different native plants returned after the burn. Deer, an important part of the native diet but hardly seen on the reservation for decades, returned in huge numbers (Robbins now sometimes feeds the burn workers with deer meat sandwiches). The creek running through the reservation used to be bone dry in the summer because all the plants sucked up the water from the soil before it ran down into the creek bed. Now, the creek runs year round, providing an important new water source. The landscape has been downgraded by Cal Fire as no longer an extreme fire risk.And, of course, they can make baskets again.
A 2021 study found the burning practices increased production of basketry stems by 13 times. This isn’t incidental: The baskets are a concrete representation of how the burning practices are not mere historical happenstance, but the byproduct of an advanced technological process refined over time to create something of value while simultaneously maintaining the raw materials it depends on for a sustainable enterprise—the holy grail to which Silicon Valley innovation aspires.
Still, there is a lot more burning to be done. There are half a million acres on the reservation. And land can’t just be burned once. It has to be burned every couple of years as part of a long-term maintenance program. Robbins knows they have to scale. So does California as a whole. The state targeted 400,000 acres of prescribed burns annually by 2025, about a fourfold increase over current levels but less than the 500,000 acres former governor Jerry Brown targeted for this year in 2018. The state estimates some 20 million acres could do with a prescribed burn, which would take 50 years to do under the 400,000 acre per year target. After so many decades of neglect, it’s not at all clear if it is even possible to scale up controlled, bureaucracy-approved prescribed burning to such a scale in the time frame needed to create a sustainable burn plan for decades going forward. And although 99.84 percent of prescribed burns go to plan according to the Forest Service, there are on average six “escapes” per year which sometimes result in a pause of prescribed burning, slowing the rate of burns even more. The bots and drone companies promise to help, but the gap between the need and the reality is so large.
“We’re just not at the scale that we want to be seeing,” said Rebecca Miller of Stanford’s Wildfire Research program. “We're just not close to what the goal is, any way you slice and dice it.”
Robbins and Calkin of the Forest Service think the only way to possibly hit those numbers is to allow some naturally occurring fires, such as ones from lightning strikes, to burn. The problem is it is currently illegal to do so, or at the very least a huge professional risk for the person in charge of putting out those fires. Many communities of non-native peoples are hostile to the idea of letting fires burn, or even of intentional burns as a concept. Most Western states direct administrators to keep wildfires as small as possible. In one extreme but well-publicized example, a Forest Service chief whose prescribed burn in Oregon jumped a containment line—an extremely rare occurrence—was arrested by a local sheriff for suspicion of reckless burning at the behest of local ranchers enraged by the mishap. There are bills and laws on the state and federal level to both slow down and speed up the rate of prescribed burns. Prescribed burns are entering the classic NIMBY cycle, where people are generally in favor as long as it’s not near them. Declining to put out a fire that then gets out of control could result in similar repercussions.
Whether a fire starts on federal, state, or county land, there is usually an administrator, a single person, responsible for the wildfire response. That person would have to make the call on whether to let the fire burn, which would be based not only on the location, conditions of the forest, the topography, and dozens of other knowable factors, but also virtually unknowable ones like what the weather and wind patterns will be like in the next two to four weeks. And the weather, both in the next few days and next few weeks, is the key factor in whether a fire will get out of control.
“You won’t get in trouble for suppressing a fire, but if the fire you chose to allow out on the landscape causes trouble, there are professional questions,” Calkin said. “There’s always a reason to suppress fire. But that suppression sets up the landscape for future failure.”
Some tech firms argue their products can help predict if a burn will get out of control, but Calkin says unless weather prediction technology improves to the degree someone can predict wind patterns weeks in advance, that’s unlikely to be the case.
Robbins and the Council are constantly seeking ways to make burning more scalable. The Nature Conservancy has helped them use GIS, a satellite-based mapping tool, to parcel out and alter burn plans much more rapidly. The Council recently tried to buy an $80,000 drone that drops pellets that create fire in hard-to-reach places, but the insurance on the drone was prohibitively expensive because they didn’t have a drone operator with enough hours of experience. So they bought a smaller drone that does surveillance and monitoring for the operator to gain experience. (This was probably for the best; when the operator took the drone out, his friend with a dog joined him, and the second the drone started lifting off, the dog snatched it out of the air like a buzzing frisbee. Fortunately, the drone was under warranty.)
When I asked Robbins if fire should be treated like a cancer, as I heard several times from various startups, she started taking notes and shaking her head. Then she stopped writing. “I wrote that analogy on my paper,” she said. “And it’s just so terrible, I just crossed it out. That’s my reaction to that analogy. It’s terrible.”
For Robbins, fire is the exact, diametric opposite to cancer. It is a restorative process that humans harnessed to make the land viable, not something that threatens our future. This constant quest to use computer code and satellites and nanochips to gather more data and information may seem harmless, potentially even beneficial, but it can also serve as a distraction from what people like Robbins already know as a result of millenia of innovation because of the implications of what it means.
“Before non-native people were here, native people were taking care of all of these landscapes with fire,” Robbins said. “As humans, we’re meant to be part of the ecosystem. And we need to take our place in that ecosystem, because if we don’t take care of the forest, it’s going to become incapable of taking care of us. And without that reciprocity, we can’t survive as a species.”