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With record heatwaves and ‘out-of-control’ wildfires, millions are poured into firetech

a wildfire burns trees
Image Credit: Egor Vikhrev // Unsplash

On the cusp of summer, wildfire season is approaching early, and a suite of startups are aiming to fight the fires with technology.

Whether it be a remotely controlled helicopter to handle firefighting missions or automatic sprinkler defense systems, startups are gearing up to join the firefighter crew.

Just yesterday in western Canada, 108 ‘out-of-control’ wildfires burned through Alberta, resulting in 29,000 evacuees.

The reality is that wildfire season is getting longer. In Alberta, an early-May heat spell combined with the dry winds made the province especially susceptible.

According to Harry Statter, CEO and founder of the San Francisco startup, Frontline Wildfire Defense, “The realities of fire fighting have changed, and we need better tools to adjust to our new normal of year-round fire season.”

The longer fire season is catalyzed by climate-fueled heat waves. Currently traversing across Asia record-breaking temperatures are rising, especially in Northern Africa and South Western Europe, where in the drought-stricken Mediterranean, scientists of a May study say could not have been possible without climate change.

The study shows that extreme heat in Western Europe is increasing even faster than climate models suggest, gearing up for an earlier summer as El Niño sets to return this year. Climate scientists say the El Niño weather phenomenon is likely to push global temperatures “off the chart,” already seen in the North American West.

In California, the wildfire season is underway. With these fires so close to the technology hub of Silicon Valley, it’s no wonder firetech is on the rise with plenty of capital investment behind it.

Frontline Wildfire Defense, just raised a $6.4 million seed round led by the firm Echelon to scale its capacity on the West Coast and fuel future product innovation.

“Firefighters are struggling to scale and environments are changing too quickly for many insurance providers to operate, leaving many property owners on their own. Innovation and adaptation are the only ways property owners, insurance providers, and firefighters will be able to operate safely,” Joel Moxley, managing partner of Echelon said, explaining the “massive” opportunity for firetech.

For Frontline, that innovation and adaption is a combination of an app, satellites, and automatic sprinklers.

With the app, homeowners and business owners track nearby wildfires using a network of satellite and publicly available cameras. If needed, Frontline’s smart sprinkler system can be activated remotely, but it automatically powers on when a blaze is within seven miles. The company says this is 100 times faster than traditional sensor-based systems. Frontline also uses “Class-A firefighting foam,” which the company says is biodegradable.

As Axios reports, the sprinkler system starts at around $30,000, including installation, for an average-size building on an average-size lot. Frontline also works with insurance companies by providing its wildfire data for underwriting purposes as well.

The price may seem steep, but in California alone, more than 2.3 million homes are directly exposed to wildfire danger with an estimated value of $343 billion. One wildfire tends to increase the cost of insurance by 24% nationally and by 30% in California, with some states like Idaho rising as high as 41%.

“Just like we consider basic features like indoor smoke detectors, solid roofing, and door locks as necessary, Frontline’s external wildfire defense technology is a non-negotiable to any building’s security,” Statter said.

According to Statter via TechCrunch this type of tech is needed because where firefighters come in the protect lives, there’s nothing to protect the property people lose.

Frontline isn’t meant to be a silver bullet, or rather, a golden hose, but they are among a broad suite of tech being deployed to combat rising wildfires.

Also based in San Fran, Connective Capital, a new venture capital fund dedicated solely to firetech launched last year with $35 million to back 15 early-stage wildfire detection and fighting companies, writing them each 7-figure checks.

Firetech is new. “It doesn’t exist as a category like fintech exists,” Bill Clerico, the former co-founder and CEO of fintech WePay and current founder of Connective Captial told TechCrunch. But he estimates there are at least 200 startups operating in this space.

Nine of them are a part of Connective’s portfolio.

One of Connective’s investments, Rain Industries, just demonstrated the capability for automated rapid initial wildfire attacks last month by remotely commanding a Black Hawk helicopter via satellite. The team was able to command the helicopter in Tullahoma, Tennesee all the way from their command center in Alameda, California.

According to the startup, it's a milestone towards building out an entire fleet of automated aircraft capable of quickly responding to ignitions to prevent catastrophic wildfires. “This is a critical first proof-of-concept to illustrate how our software will allow uncrewed aircraft to support firefighting missions,” Rain’s Chief Engineer, Ephraim Nowak said.

Another one of Connective’s investments, Amsterdam-based Overstory raised $5.2 million in November, led by the firm.

Overstory is a global intelligence platform that analyzes vegetation to prevent wildfires and power outages. According to the startup, vegetation is the single greatest contributor to power outages and wildfires caused by our electric grid. So the team behind Overstory developed algorithms in partnership with arborists and forestry professionals on more than 700,000 miles around the world.

With its global footprint, Overstory can provide utilities with visibility, risk analysis, and optimization recommendations for vegetation across the world.

Another startup that Connective invests in is Treeswift, which around this time last year raised a $4.8 million seed round. Also powered by robotics and AI, Treeswift makes forests easier to measure. This data can be utilized for a wide range of different applications, including deforestation monitoring, carbon capture readings, and of course, forest fire prevention.

Treeswift isn’t the only one using AI to fight fires. San Fransisco’s PanoAI offers what they call a fully managed solution combining advanced hardware, artificial intelligence, and easy-to-use cloud-based software to provide fire agencies with actionable intelligence.

According to the startup “Response time determines whether or not a small flare-up becomes a raging inferno,” and with its tech and last year’s $20 million round, PanoAI aims to lower the hours it can sometimes take to detect and fight a fire.

Several other startups are working to mitigate and adapt to wildfires, from Kettle which works to pinpoint where they will hit, to Terra Space Lab which detects wildfires around this globe from space.

But “there’s still a really big gap between what needs to be done and what’s being done,” Clerico told Bloomberg when Connective Capital launched last year, saying that over the next two years, they plan to cut several more checks

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