Why tech has been slow to fight wildfires, extreme weather

Rachel Lerman
Associated Press

San Francisco — For two years running, California’s wildfires have sent plumes of smoke across Silicon Valley. That hasn’t spurred much tech innovation aimed at addressing extreme-weather disasters associated with climate change.

It’s true that tech companies from enterprise software-maker Salesforce to financial-technology firm Stripe have pushed to dramatically reduce their climate impact. Individual investors and small investment firms have stepped in to fund emerging efforts around cleantech — a term used broadly to describe technology that looks to manage human impact on the environment. And the catastrophic Australian wildfires have spurred additional interest.

But among startups who provide much of tech innovation, things are still moving slowly. That’s partly a lingering hangover from a cleantech investment bust almost a decade ago. But the technology itself can also take years to prove and even longer to convince traditional utilities and government agencies to adopt.

In this Oct. 31, 2019, file photo, smoke from the Maria Fire billows above Santa Paula, Calif. The nation's largest utility says its distribution lines have sparked no damaging wildfires, but Pacific Gas & Electric is not ruling out that failed transmission equipment may have started a fire north of San Francisco that damaged or destroyed more than 400 structures.

“That’s a big bottleneck,” said Bilal Zuberi, a venture capitalist at Lux Capital who focuses on emerging tech investments.

Zuberi said a recent uptick in funding and activity is encouraging, but he also cautioned that new companies have to find ways to effectively work with slow-moving potential customers.

Clean tech companies focused specifically on addressing climate change issues are facing similar trends.

“It is a massive gap,” Matt Rogers, co-founder of venture capital firm Incite Ventures, said of the tech industry’s involvement in climate tech funding. “Folks don’t work in this space.”

But he added that this seems to be changing, with the most promising movement in the past year.

One of the firm’s portfolio companies, Pittsburgh-based Pearl Street Technologies, is working on software to help utilities better manage an increasingly “smart” electric grid — the web of power generators, substations and transmission lines that brings power to homes and business.

The idea is that greater visibility into the way their grid functions can help utilities fix certain problems faster and better prevent others. But the power industry is fairly cautious about adopting new technologies, co-founder David Bromberg said.

DroneSeed is a proprietary seed vessel used to quickly restore thousands of acres of wildfire ravaged land starting in 30 days.

Other startups are attempting to tackle wildfires head-on.

Chooch AI, an artificial intelligence company based in San Francisco, is using a system that analyzes satellite images every 10 minutes to identify where new wildfires may have broken out.

At the moment, firefighters largely rely on traditional methods to spot fires — typically people who call in after seeing smoke. That can lead to false alarms and fires that go unnoticed for too long, said Chooch CEO Emrah Gultekin.

Another startup hoping to prevent fires from spreading is Ladera Tech, a company founded by a former forestry manager and a Stanford University professor. The pair developed a material that allows environmentally friendly fire retardant to be sprayed on brush and grasses near roadways, where fires are likely to break out — often as a result of small sparks from cars.

Hillsides often need maintenance — and replanting — after fires break out. Seattle startup DroneSeed is tackling this with five huge drones designed to rapidly replant trees in fire-ravaged areas — a process that could take humans alone months.