Forest fire protection: Frontline, Firemaps, other start-ups


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In October 2017, Anil Arora sat helplessly in San Francisco as the Tubbs fire approached his home in Calistoga, California.

Arora watched through a Ring camera as the fire made its way through her yard before consuming the rest of her property. That night, Arora and her family could smell the smoke from the fire that had burned down their home, over 70 miles away.

“It was just a shocking scene,” Arora said. “The next day we sat down and we talked about it and we said, ‘You know what? We’re going to rebuild.’”

Anil Arora watched through a Ring camera in October 2017 as the Tubbs fire burned down his home in Calistoga, California.

Courtesy of Anil Arora

As the family planned their rebuilding, Arora knew he wanted roof sprinklers for the house so it would never burn again. After browsing Google for options, Arora came across Frontline Wildfire Defense, a startup that had just created a sprinkler system that was exactly what he was looking for. Two years later he had a new home with a dozen sprinklers on the roof, each capable of projecting water and foam up to 30 feet in all directions.

Arora is one of a growing number of homeowners who are turning to climate technology start-ups to bolster their properties against natural disasters that are increasing in frequency and power due to global warming.

The California wildfires are “something we would see anyway, regardless of climate change and regardless of population, but when you add climate change into the equation, it increases the risk of fire.” said Harry Statter, CEO of Frontline, which has raised $ 3 million. in financing.

In August, the UN climate panel released a disastrous report calling for immediate action. The agency warned that limiting global warming to nearly 1.5 degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels “will be out of reach” over the next two decades without rapid and large-scale reductions in emissions. greenhouse gases. The report says that at 2 degrees Celsius, extreme heat would often reach critical tolerances for agriculture and health.

“We had a house burned down, so it’s very real to us. It’s not a conceptual thing,” Arora said.

As homeowners reflect on how they can defend their homes, entrepreneurs and investors are starting to devote their time and money to this largely untapped market.

“What we have right now is an opportunity to bring the best and brightest minds to work on something that is truly worth it,” said Greg Smithies, Partner and Head of Climate Technology at Fifth Wall, a venture capital firm. To date, Fifth Wall has raised over $ 300 million for its climate technology fund.

Until November, more venture capital money was invested in climate technology in 2021 than any previous year, according to data provided by PitchBook. Almost $ 26.7 billion was invested in climate technology in 2021, up from $ 15.3 billion in 2020 and $ 11.8 billion in 2019, according to PitchBook.

With homes and buildings in particular, climate change poses a risk of up to $ 35 trillion in real estate assets by 2070, noted Smithies, citing a 2016 report from the United Nations Framework Convention on climatic changes.

“The opportunity here to have a startup to make a lot of money just given the size of the market is very easily a lot greater than any opportunities we’ve seen instead,” Smithies said.

The Frontline Wildfire Defense System uses sprinklers, each capable of projecting water and foam up to 30 feet in all directions, to help homeowners fight wildfires.

Courtesy of Frontline Wildfire Defense

Peace of mind against fires

The purpose of Frontline’s system is to wet a property, hydrate the combustible vegetation surrounding a home and building materials, making it less likely to ignite if a fire approaches, Statter told CNBC. The system can be activated by flipping a switch in the house or via a Frontline mobile app. If a fire has caused the Wi-Fi or cellular connection to fail, the system can also connect to Frontline via satellite, ensuring that a customer can turn on the sprinklers no matter what, Statter said.

The company also plans to release a new version of its app in December that will provide comprehensive, near real-time forest fire safety information for everyone. This includes a map that shows wildfires, evacuation warnings, safe restocking orders and status, the company said.

“You don’t have to own the system to use the new app,” Statter said. “This serves to reduce the risk for anyone who lives in wildfire areas. “

Harry Statter is the CEO of Frontline Wildfire Defense, a start-up that created a roof sprinkler system to help homeowners protect their properties from wildfires.

Courtesy of Frontline Wildfire Defense

The defense system cost Arora around $ 10,000, although Frontline’s systems typically cost between $ 15,000 and $ 25,000 on average, according to Statter. Arora said he decided to rebuild the house because of his family’s emotional attachment to where his children grew up. Paying $ 10,000 for fire defense sprinklers was worth it, he said.

“It’s an emotional investment and a financial investment. Our children grew up attached to it,” said Arora. “You want to make sure you’re doing everything you can. “

Arora turned on the system to wet his property a few months ago when a fire broke out nearby, but he still has to rely on the system to fight a fire. But perhaps more importantly, the system is something tangible that Arora can do, rather than passively watch it.

“What it gives me the most is peace of mind,” said Arora.

Sylvia Wu and her husband decided to toughen their Corralitos, Calif., Home against wildfires this year with Firemaps, a start-up that helps homeowners identify the parts of their property most at risk.

Courtesy of Sylvia Wu

Reduce the risk

Technician Sylvia Wu and her husband were on a road trip in September 2020 when they became anxious. The wildfires had started to spread in Santa Cruz County, California, and they were uncomfortably closing in on their home in Corralitos.

Fortunately, nothing happened, but in June 2021 the couple decided to take action to protect their home. Wu contacted his former colleague at Uber, Jahan Khanna, a serial entrepreneur whose latest start-up, Firemaps, is helping homeowners strengthen their homes against wildfires.

Firemaps uses technologies such as drones, computer vision, satellite imagery, and artificial intelligence to analyze a home and determine which parts are most vulnerable to wildfires and what actions can be taken to improve their resilience.

Firemaps creates a 3D model of the house and presents the owner with a list of recommendations. Once the owner has decided which ones to accept, Firemaps offers the work to their network of contractors, all of whom they have previously checked. Firemaps does not charge owners for the service, but instead takes a contractor referral fee.

Firemaps is a start-up that uses technologies such as drones, computer vision, satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to create 3D renderings of houses to analyze and determine which parts of a property are most exposed to forest fires and what measures can be taken. to improve their resilience.

Courtesy of Firemaps

Khanna said he and his co-founders felt that not enough was being done to protect homes from the growing risks of climate change.

“The founding team all live in California. We have experienced wildfires ourselves,” said Khanna. “There didn’t seem to be so many people working on the practical impact of climate change here and now. It seemed like an opening and a need that we could fill.”

Firemaps has determined a number of steps Wu and her husband could take to protect their home.

This included raising the canopy of the trees surrounding the structure, cutting down a bamboo grove, removing a large tree that stood right next to the house, reducing the size of ornamental bushes. and grass around the house and laying down decomposed granite, which is not flammable.

“I always wanted to go out with a tape measure and measure things, but, you know, you get busy, you get lazy and I never did,” Wu said.

Jahan Khanna is a serial entrepreneur whose latest start-up, Firemaps, is helping homeowners strengthen their homes against wildfires.

Courtesy of Firemaps

Wu and her husband decided to follow the recommendations, and after two full days of work, the contractors were able to complete the work. With her friend discount, Wu said she paid $ 4,000 for the job.

“Nothing will stop your house from burning if the fires get worse,” Wu said. “There is always a chance that this will happen, but I just wanted to make sure I took every possible precaution. is beyond that is not really under my control. “

Once the job is done, Firemaps does another 3D render of the house. The company checks that the work has been done correctly and communicates it to the owner’s insurance as well as the local fire department and any other entity that needs to know, Khanna said.

Because climate change is an intractable global problem, Khanna said, people are going to have to take action to protect themselves.

“The first tendency of people is to move away. But people need to understand that this is a large-scale crisis and that it is not going to go away,” Khanna said. “Without us doing this hard work, it’s going to keep getting worse. We have to face this problem or it’s going to get worse.”

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