Fighting bigger blazes with Silicon Valley technology – Santa Cruz Sentinel

The startup Lumineye began with the aim of empowering soldiers to see through walls. But climate change has expanded the market, and Lumineye is now working with firefighters to optimize its product – a handheld device that uses radar to see people inside buildings and in thick bushes.

“Unfortunately, the more fires happen, the more we will focus on this use case,” said Megan Lacy, co-founder and co-CEO of the company that emerged from a course that arose from a Stanford University entrepreneurship initiative. .

California’s drought, forests full of fuel, and communities along narrow roads in heavily forested areas make for a deadly recipe, tragically illustrated by the tragic example of the 2018 campfire that killed 86 people in paradise. Scientists agree that climate change will make forest fires increasingly catastrophic, the specter of flames that engulf communities and smother the state is driving innovation, much of it in Silicon Valley, to fight fires with new technologies.

A Cal Fire air tanker drops fire retardants on the glass fire east of Mount Saint Helena in Calistoga, California on Saturday, October 3, 2020. (Anda Chu – Bay Area News Group)

Last year, a wall of fire swept from the Santa Cruz Mountains towards the palatial home of tech industry guru Steve Blank overlooking the ocean south of Pescadero. His house stands still thanks to what he calls the valor of the Cal Fire ground forces who helped him fight the flames within a foot of his house. But unless California aggressively adopts new technology, Blank believes, much of the Bay Area and the rest of California will be left in smoky ruins.

“They’re looking for force multipliers,” says Blank, who works in rain, a Palo Alto startup that makes retarding drones. “How can we fight this exponential growth (in forest fires) without exceeding California’s gross domestic product?”

Blank envisions a future in which satellites detect fires as soon as they start and artificial intelligence software dispatches fire-fighting drones. That Blank would suggest a Silicon Valley solution with AI and flying robots is perhaps not surprising. He is an influential startup expert who teaches at UC Berkeley and Stanford University – his Hacking for Defense class became a national program that spawned Lumineye.

And Blank’s vision seems to be getting closer to reality every day. Cal Fire and other agencies have started using AI, satellites and drones and are exploring other innovative solutions.

Dan Munsey, the San Bernardino County Fire Department chief, noted that, not so long ago, firefighters relied primarily on paper cards and ink pens. “The technology adoption we’ve seen over the past three years has exploded,” said Munsey.

Charlie Crocker, CEO of Zonehaven, creates software that shows fire locations, evacuation zones and escape routes. It was used by rescue workers and the public during the Santa Cruz Mountains (CZU) fires last summer where it was photographed on Friday May 28, 2021. (Karl Mondon – Bay Area News Group)

During the fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains last year, one of a series of huge fires sparked by dry lightning, Bay Area Startup Zonehaven’s Map-based evacuation software for government and citizens went live in what CEO Charlie Crocker called “our fire attempt”.

Established in 2018, Zonehaven is already being adopted by Cal Fire and dozens of other agencies and local governments – including Santa Clara, San Mateo, Contra Costa and Alameda – to coordinate the safe exodus of people from threatened areas. The public app shows the residents where they are on a map, with the evacuation status – from the warning to the warning to the order – being indicated by the color of their zone.

“If you really got to the heart of the real problem in what I call the mega-fires era, it’s evacuations,” said Jake Hess, Santa Clara County director for Cal Fire.

Last year’s fires burned a record 4.3 million acres in California, and this year, 85% of California has experienced extreme drought. Seven major forest fires burned across the state last week.

A drone that resembles a small helicopter used as the “Mark 2” fire-fighting aircraft for Palo Alto startup Rain Industries (courtesy of Rain Industries)

At Rain, which is trying to sell service contracts for its drones to Cal Fire and other agencies, CEO Maxwell Brodie believes traditional fire-fighting methods, while crucial, are not enough in the face of larger and larger fires. “It doesn’t matter how many people or planes or tankers you throw at the problem, our solutions don’t scale,” he said. “A major challenge in integrating new technologies into fire-fighting operations is to overcome the previous type.”

In the Menlo Park Fire Department, Chief Harold Schapelhouman oversees a fleet of 30 camera-bearing drones that he says could provide valuable eyes in the sky in forest fires, including at night and in smoke and weather conditions that ground helicopters and planes. Cal Fire’s use of drones for landscape and damage surveys is a good move in his opinion, but the agency’s safety regulations don’t allow him to launch his drones in forest fires, even if they fly low enough not to threaten fire-fighting planes. “Take off the handcuffs,” he said. “Let us fly.”

Capella room, a San Francisco-based company that has four orbiting satellites capable of providing detailed landscape photos through clouds or smoke day and night, plans to offer its services to Cal Fire and the US Forest Service to help the authorities “get information to people quickly “Being able to be on site to ensure they know what to expect when they enter an area,” said Dan Getman, Vice President of Product.

Stanford University materials science professor Eric Appel, who led the development of a roadside fire retardant gel, said caution should be exercised with new fire fighting technologies “because people have long tried to sell snake oil in the field.” While Cal Fire’s emergency funding skyrocketed in 2020-21 from an initial $ 360 million to more than $ 1 billion by the end of 2020 – paid for more firefighters and planes – money for new technologies was comparatively tight said Appel.

Phillip SeLegue, deputy head of Intel’s unit at Cal Fire, said the agency is responding to technological change along with environmental changes, citing the launch of the Technosylva computing platform, which predicts, 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 US military drones and has invested heavily in a widespread system of forest cameras, Hess noted.

The agency receives other feeds from classified Pentagon sources and from satellites that detect ignitions and enable ongoing near real-time fire assessment, all of which are visible on the Technosylva platform along with the ALERT camera views, SeLegue said.

Artificial intelligence software that processes images of Cal Fire aircraft and sends them to ground commanders to show the fire locations should be fully operational this year, SeLegue added. The agency plans to coordinate with the U.S. Forest Service on the use of drones to ignite controlled burns to block the spread of fire, and is working with NASA to incorporate autonomous drones into firefighting, possibly to move people and supplies, provide communications links, or even to be drop-resistant. he said.

Firefighters work to protect homes near apartment buildings that are on fire on Madrone Avenue at the corner of Virginia Avenue on Friday, August 22, 2020 in Boulder Creek, California on Friday, August 22, 2020 to be in flames. (Dylan Bouscher – Bay Area News Group)

Whether technology can save us in the midst of California’s warming climate remains to be seen. Many communities in the Oakland and Berkeley Hills, or Woodside, Los Gatos, Felton, and Bonny Doon are surrounded by forests and have limited escape routes. “It’s really just a dice game,” said Stanford’s Appel. “The more major fire disasters we have, the greater the chance that we will have another paradise.”