Aug 31, 2023

Saving the Built-World from Inferno: Tech in Wildfire Response

Wildfires are growing in size and strength. With each year, these fires seem to cause more damage, making headlines and taking a toll on communities. But with each fire, we also see a pattern: governments and traditional methods struggle to keep pace.

In other industries, private companies have made significant strides where governments were unable to meet the swift changes in tech, economy and nature.

I asked myself recently: Could the private sector, with its ability to absorb tech integration, be a scalable and rapid answer to our expanding wildfire (and moreso – disasters in general) problem?

Wildfires Growing Wild

Year to date in 2023, the NIFC has recorded 88 large wildfires and 40k fires in total across the USA, amounting to 2M of acres burnt. 20’000 personnel were dispatched in response.

Growing wilder: An increase of +45% of annual fires and a stunning +75% of acres burnt per year are observed over the last ten years.

NIFC. Bottom two numbers in blue are: #of fires and acres burnt across the USA

Where Traditional Methods Fall Short

Government firefighting teams are skilled. They are dedicated. But they face challenges. With limited budgets, they often do not use the most modern (tactical) tools. Finding talent is a growing issue (as it is everywhere). Semi-Public jobs aren’t necessarily going to be the winners of finding talent…

And as fires grow larger, these teams are spread thin. There’s a need for help, and a private firefighting force usin cutting-edge technology might have the answers?

Lessons from Space: The Rise of Private Enterprises

When we look at space exploration, we see a clear shift. Once dominated by government agencies like NASA, the arena has dramatically transformed thanks to private companies. Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Isar Aerospace have changed the game. They’ve brought fresh ideas, swift implementation, and innovative technologies. SpaceX, for instance, reduced the cost of launching payloads to space, turning the dream of commercial space travel into a tangible reality. Blue Origin focuses on building a future where millions of people live and work in space. Meanwhile, Isar Aerospace is putting Europe on the map with its satellite launch solutions. These companies, unburdened by the bureaucratic pace of government agencies, have made space exploration faster, cheaper, and more ambitious.

The Same Happens on the Battlefield

A similar transition is evident on the tactical battlefield. Traditionally, national military forces were the primary actors in conflict zones. But in recent years, private military corporations (PMCs) have carved a significant niche for themselves. These corporations offer specialized services, from security detail for diplomats to logistics and support in war-torn regions. Their agility and capacity to provide tailored solutions have made them invaluable in many situations. PMCs can operate without the same level of red tape that national military units face. This allows for faster decision-making and deployment. Critics argue that this flexibility can sometimes border on recklessness or undermine diplomatic efforts. However, there’s no denying that PMCs have transformed the tactical landscape, proving that private entities can impact areas traditionally overseen by state actors.

And Also in Previously Public Healthcare

The healthcare landscape is also experiencing a seismic shift due to private tech intervention. Traditional healthcare systems, often mired in bureaucracy and slow to adapt, are now being supplemented or even bypassed by agile tech companies. These companies are revolutionizing the sector, offering solutions ranging from AI-powered diagnostics to telemedicine platforms. For instance, tech giants like Apple and Google are entering the health space with apps and devices that monitor vital statistics, enabling early disease detection and personal health management. Startups are also flourishing, offering telehealth consultations, digital therapy sessions, and online pharmacy services. By doing so, they’re making healthcare more accessible and tailored to individual needs. While these advancements promise improved patient outcomes and cost-saving measures, they also underscore the trend: the boundary between the tech industry and healthcare is blurring, heralding a new era of privatized, tech-driven health solutions.

Apply This to Disaster Response: The Potential of Private Tech in Wildfires

As you can see, private tech startups have already transformed many sectors. They bring tech absorption. They have money to invest in research. And they can act fast. Here’s how they might help with wildfires:

  1. Tech:
    • Wildfire Prediction: Use data analytics to predict potential wildfire breakout areas by analyzing factors like dryness, vegetation, wind patterns, and historical data.
    • AI-based Dynamic Pathfinding: Use gen-AI plus aerial imagery and rapidly advancing radar techniques such as SAR (to “see” through forest canopies for example) to map and label the ground and terrain conditions. Use it to find the best path in real-time.
    • Robotic Equipment: Use robotic solutions for situations deemed too dangerous for human intervention, such as building firebreaks or navigating highly volatile areas.
    • Real-time Monitoring: Implement a network of sensors and satellite imagery to detect and monitor wildfires in real-time, giving instant updates about the fire’s direction, intensity, and speed.
    • Integrated Communication: Ensure seamless communication among teams, HQ, and external partners (like local fire departments) using encrypted channels, ensuring a swift and coordinated response.
    • Augmented Reality (AR): Equip ground teams with AR devices (like smart helmets) that overlay real-time data about the fire, safe routes, water sources, and wind patterns.
    • Resource Allocation: Analyze available resources (equipment, personnel, and more) and dispatch them efficiently based on real-time needs and the scale of the fire.
  2. Employment Experience:
    • Better Pay and Benefits: Provide significantly better compensation to veteran personnel leaving the public sector, as well as rookies wanting to join the job and deciding between public and private sector.
    • Advanced Equipment: Use cutting-edge technology to appeal to firefighters wish to be effective in the field.
    • Integrated Dynamic Pathfinding and response to operational threats in real-time.
    • More Safety? Apply technology to safety protocols, but also to prevent dangerous situations in the first place.
  3. Operational Deployment:
    • Aerial Support: Advanced use of drones for both reconnaissance, active firefighting (e.g., water drops) and supply lifts. Drone fleets can be used to monitor fire progression and direct ground crews more effectively.
    • Rapid Response Units: Develop specialized teams ready to be airlifted or mobilized at a moment’s notice to the heart of the fire outbreak, equipped with advanced firefighting equipment and communication tools.
    • Training: Offer specialized training to firefighters, focusing on both the technical aspects of firefighting and physical endurance and tactics. This would combine firefighting best practices with some of Blackwater’s expertise in operating under extreme conditions.
  4. Business Model:
    • Subscription: Local governments, state parks, and private landowners can subscribe to the service, ensuring rapid response in case of a wildfire on or near their property.
    • Fee for Service (essentially paid-per-response): Offer disaster response, but also data analysis, tech solutions, and training to other firefighting agencies or private entities worldwide.
    • Equipment Sales: Develop and sell specialized firefighting equipment and technologies to other parties.
    • Insurance? Potentially enabling advanced parametric disaster insurance.

But: Not Easy to Fix …

Here are some issues you might face if founders want to go after this big opportunity:

  1. Coordination with Local Entities: Ensuring seamless collaboration with local fire departments will be crucial.
  2. Regulatory Hurdles: The deployment of a private firefighting force may face resistance or regulatory issues in many regions.
  3. Unions: Especially in US, what is the implication to work with the IAFF and smaller unions? Do they have any leverage?
  4. Culpability: Who is gets what blame when customer (state) and supplier (private corps) disagree on the effectiveness and timing of the disaster response?

Why Now, You Ask ?

Consider this:

Growing Frequency and Intensity of Wildfires: Climate change has significantly contributed to more extended fire seasons, drier conditions, and more intense wildfires. Regions previously untouched or minimally impacted by wildfires are now seeing increased activity. This escalating threat necessitates innovative solutions. In fact, the US has already called in the National Guard (i.e. Military) to help with responding to massive wildfires in 2020 and 2021.

Failed States → Private Companies: As previously seen in defense, space and healthcare, state-critical sectors that crumble under massive requirements when administered by state-actors get “fixed” by outsourcing narrowly scoped tasks/projects to mega-private corps who can work more agile, adopt technology, and attract talent.

Rapid Technological Advancements > Tech Absorption of Incumbent Firefighting Forces: Data analytics, AI, satellite imaging, robotics and drone technology have reached a level of sophistication that allows for accurate wildfire prediction, real-time monitoring, and effective firefighting strategies.

Limited Resources of Public Firefighting Entities: In many regions, public firefighting resources are stretched thin. As wildfires become larger and more frequent, public entities are struggling to respond effectively. A private corps could provide additional manpower and resources during peak times.

Public Awareness → Political Considerations: Public consciousness about wildfires, largely driven by high-profile fires and their coverage in the media, is at an all-time high. While the ability to fight them is deteriorating. Disaster responses from history can “make or break” a political candidate in an election year, see Katrina (2006) in the US or the Oder-Floodings (2002) in Germany. Natural disasters – and the ability to effectively respond to them – creates political exposure to incumbent administrators, who in turn might be very inclined to adopt “easy” private solutions to outsource the problem-solution and maintain exculpation.

I remain extremely interested in this opportunity. We (Foundamental) are affiliated with large forest owners. As investors in the real-world, packed with this understanding of forests, and our history of partnering with founders in hard-tech, 3D and robotics, we are quite intrigued by what this opportunity has to offer to build a vast company to improve earth.