Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

A new wave of startups is tackling a huge emissions source: wildfires

The growing field of firetech” is reinventing the age-old practice of prescribed burns and devising other novel methods of preventing and suppressing fires.
By Eric Wesoff

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A raging orange and red wildfire engulfs a forested hill. Power lines slash diagonally across the image
The Alisal fire north of Santa Barbara County, California in October 2021 (Xinhua/Getty Images)

There’s no doubt that the threat of wildfires is growing more and more dire as greenhouse gas emissions continue to warm the planet.

The evidence? Five of the 10 worst wildfire events in U.S. history occurred in the last 10 years. Eight of the 10 largest fires in California’s documented history have occurred since 2017.

It’s a staggeringly large problem with a global reach: If wildfires were a country, they’d be ranked No. 4, behind China, the U.S. and India in terms of carbon emissions,” Nancy Pfund, founder and managing partner of investment firm DBL Partners, told a packed audience at a recent Canary Live panel.

The growing urgency of this issue has given rise to a category of startups called firetech,” a technology ecosystem that aims to confront the threat of wildfires and restore the health of the world’s forests. There is an incumbent set of players, but there is also a brigade of investors dedicated to pumping money into the sector and mission-driven entrepreneurs committed to devising solutions; no fewer than 50 U.S. startups are working in the space right now.

The wave of firetech companies is a good sign that investors are looking for ways to finance climate resilience and adaptation. Resilience efforts focus on enhancing responses to and recovery from climate-related events, while adaptation efforts refine existing systems and technologies to better address the evolving climate reality. It’s a segment that historically has attracted less funding than companies focused on more tangible products such as solar or batteries. At least one investor, Convective Capital, backs nothing but early-stage companies building solutions to wildfires.

And DBL Ventures, a long-standing climatetech venture fund, has started to embrace this sector as well, with recent investments in firetech startups Rain and Mast Reforestation. DBL has shown a particular interest in companies working to improve fire management in the U.S. According to a new report from the venture firm, scaling up the use of prescribed burns, a crucial but underutilized fire-prevention strategy, is an especially promising approach.

For much of the twentieth century, U.S. fire-management strategy focused on total suppression rather than nature-aligned regenerative management. As a result, the country is home to a backlog of denser, fuel-heavy forests that are dangerously prone to catastrophic wildfires, especially in this warmer, drier era. Beneficial fire in the form of strategic controlled burns can reduce the amount of fuel sources available to a fire while preventing the growth of invasive species, which are often less fire-tolerant.

Although prescribed burns have become more widely adopted across the U.S. since the 1970s, the DBL report contends that the urgency of the climate crisis demands a material increase in the number of burns performed each year, particularly in the West, where there is the highest risk of catastrophic wildfires and where millions of people live adjacent to forests in the wildland-urban interface.”

Prescribed burns not only decrease wildfire risk and bestow ecological benefits — they are also more cost-effective than other types of fuel management, such as manually or mechanically removing leaf litter and downed woody material.

And although prescribed burns have been used for thousands of years, a new crop of startups claim they are improving on the techniques used to plan, carry out and control managed fires. Here’s a look at a few of the leading startups aspiring to commercialize firetech.

A roundup of promising firetech startups

Nebraska-based Drone Amplified aims to replace the human-piloted helicopters that are now used for aerial ignition by using drones to drop golf-ball-sized incendiary spheres to set off prescribed burns. The drones are also equipped with surveillance equipment to monitor the fires as they run their course or to detect naturally occurring and other types of fires. Other startups in the space are using similar technologies such as satellite networks, hardened sensors and autonomous flight to identify or fight fires in the woods, often with the goal of preventing small fires from becoming catastrophic, high-intensity blazes.

California-based startup Rain, a DBL Ventures portfolio company, is also exploring autonomous aerial solutions. Its tech enables fire agencies to deploy sensor-laden drone helicopters in high-risk spots to identify fires before they spin out of control and suppress fires when they are first detected. Parallel Flight Technologies is also developing drones for use in aerial ignition and fire suppression.

Among the startups working on spotting fires sooner, German player OroraTech is developing satellite-based infrared sensors for locating wildfires. Israeli firm Edgybees’ software optimizes satellite imagery to improve wildfire response, while Pano AI analyzes satellite and aerial images to detect wildfires early and alert emergency response teams.

Vegetation-management startups are attacking the problem of tree-thinning and fuel removal with innovations in sensors, software and carbon sequestration. Kodama Systems automates forest-thinning and biomass burial for carbon sequestration, while Overstory uses AI to analyze satellite data to identify wildfire risk from power lines near vegetation.

Recovery, resiliency and adaptation innovators are making it easier to restore damaged forests and minimize the spread of future wildfires. DBL Ventures portfolio company Mast Reforestation provides satellite mapping to create reforestation plans. Vibrant Planet uses high-resolution satellite imagery to give planners the best choice of potential land treatments. Fire Aside motivates residents to take action to reduce wildfire risk to their property, while Fire Maps provides an online platform to ease the home fire-hardening process.

Insurance and risk is another major segment that firetech startups are working to address as climate change exponentially increases the financial exposure of businesses and homeowners alike. Delos develops wildfire risk models for insurers and underwriters, and ClimUp provides actionable risk and mitigation data — providing insights at the structure level for almost any property. Finally, Kettle is modeling fire risk to optimize its role as an underwriter for insurers.

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of demand for more effective wildfire management. The challenge for entrepreneurs and investors is to create a sustainable business with consistent revenue when the target end customers are slow-moving, tightfisted government agencies and utilities.

Eric Wesoff is editorial director at Canary Media.