Combating Wildfires with Science

The Marshall Fire near Boulder, Colorado is the most recent example of the increasing toll of wildfires on the American West

Carly Anderson
Jan 10 · 10 min read

Key Takeaways

  • On December 30 — well past typical fire season — a fire in Colorado’s Boulder County destroyed over 1,000 homes. Many more are dealing with smoke damage; thousands of people are currently displaced. (See here for ways to help.)
  • Damages due to wildfires have soared in recent years. The number of acres burned (more than 4% of California’s area burned last year), the number of structures impacted, and property losses have all increased. From 2018 through 2020, there were 100 deaths due to wildfire, 40,000 structures destroyed, and nearly $40 billion in insured losses paid.
  • We have made progress towards reducing harm from other types of fires — specifically structural fires (fires in buildings). In 2018, there were only half as many deaths in building fires as in 1980 (2,720 vs 5,200 fatalities). Updates to building codes like requiring smoke alarms and sprinkler systems have played a key role in reducing damages.
  • PSA: Modern synthetic furniture can become a fireball in minutes. When in doubt, GET OUT!
  • In addition to the very human costs of increasingly destructive fires, pundits believe that property losses (already at tens of billions of dollars per year) will continue to increase. Will pressure from the insurance agencies and possible new federal spending be enough to create venture backable returns? It’s a bit early to make this call, but this space is beginning to attract entrepreneurs. It’s a good thing because we need better tools across all areas of fire mitigation: prevention, detection, response, and recovery.

Last week, the Marshall Fire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes in Louisville and Superior, near Boulder, Colorado. One of these homes belonged to my friend’s aging parents. Another close friend (who happens to be a bad@ss ER doc) had a near-miss — the home of the family across the street burned down, but theirs is still standing. Her family, and thousands of others, were lucky — though it is still unclear when they can go home and will spend the next weeks assessing the damage from smoke and soot.

The Marshall Fire now ranks as the most destructive fire in Colorado history. As of Jan 3, 991 structures were destroyed, 127 were damaged, and 6,219 acres were burned. Two people are still missing. It’s frankly incredible that the casualties weren’t higher — one thing to be grateful for. While initially a downed power line was blamed, the cause is currently unknown.

Wildfires are extremely complicated events, and wildfire science (and solutions) are really still in the early days. In this first post, we’ll assess the situation, compare it to trends in urban fires, and call out some areas to watch.

Wildfire Season’s New Normal

The Marshall Fire joins a growing list of devastating fire events in the western US, Australia, and other countries. Some notable US examples are below:

  • In the 2021 Dixie Fire, 969,000 acres in Northern California burned; over 1100 buildings were lost (including 600 residential), and there was 1 death (a firefighter). PG&E, the electric utility recently deemed responsible after a tree fell on a power line, expects costs from the Dixie Fire to be above $1.1 billion.
  • The 2020 August Complex Fire burned over 1 million acres in California, creating a new classification: the gigafire. The fire was started by a series of dry lightning strikes across the state, which also ignited the North Complex Fire, the SCU Complex Fire and LNU Complex Fires (each about 400,000 acres) and CZU Complex Fire (86,000 acres, $2.4 billion in insured losses).
  • The 2018 Camp Fire near Paradise, California was the deadliest wildfire in California history, killing 85 people. It also destroyed nearly 19,000 buildings and burned 153,000 acres. The total damage was estimated at $16.5 billion; one-quarter of the damage, $4 billion, was not insured. Roughly $150 million was spent on fire suppression.
  • The 2017 Tubbs Fire in Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties burned 36,807 acres and destroyed 5,643 structures, including a large part of Santa Rosa. The death toll was 22. Insured losses exceeded $9 billion.

No matter what metric we look at related to wildfires — the number of acres burned, deaths, structures lost, “insured losses,” number of poor air quality days, ecological impact — the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. From 2018 through 2020, there were 100 deaths due to wildfire, 40,000 structures were destroyed, and nearly $40 billion in insured losses were paid. (From the NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire press release) The U.S. spends at least $2 billion dollars a year supporting fire suppression, yet structure loss due to wildfire have increased more than 160 percent.

It’s also no mystery why this is happening. Shifts in seasonal weather patterns caused by climate change have led to extended hot, dry periods, as well as extreme weather events (winds, lightning storms) in the American West and other parts of the world. High fuel loads created by past forest management practices help fires burn more intensely. Increasing human development at the Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI (often pronounced “Whoo-eee”) put more structures and people at risk. Every year, there are more humans doing dumb stuff in areas with high fire risk. (On average, 88% of wildfires were caused by humans over the period from 2016 to 2020.)

Learning from Other Types of Fires

Based on our past record in reducing other types of fires, I’m optimistic that we can do better. We’ve made a lot of progress in preventing and combating structural fires (fires in buildings). We don’t see fires consuming entire city blocks as they did in the early 20th century. Since 1980, both the number of structural fires and the number of related deaths have fallen by about half, from 5,200 to 2,720. [Source: NFPA] (Given that the population has grown since then, the rate per capita is even lower.)

How did we do it? Updating building codes played a key role in reducing the number and severity of fires. They are the main reason that there are much fewer and less deadly fires in larger buildings than in single-family residences (which aren’t required to have sprinklers). Mandating smoked detectors, and design changes for products like cigarettes, candles, and electronics have also helped. Here, research-supported regulatory action has greatly reduced damages and loss of life.

Trivia Question: what is the main cause of fire-related deaths in the US? Wildfires are NOT the main cause of fire-related civilian deaths. There were 3,500 fire-related deaths in 2020. That year, 33 people died in wildfires. Vehicle fires caused 630 deaths. The majority of fire deaths (over 2200 that year) were in one- and two-family homes. Cooking causes roughly half of residential fires, and smoking has been a leading cause of fire-related death for the past four decades. Additionally, one in three fatal home fire victims is 65 or older, highlighting the fact that the growing older population is especially at risk.

Also interesting (and scary) is that the numbers have gotten better despite an increase in highly flammable materials used in homes. Today, if a home fire is reported, occupants are more likely to die than they were 40 years ago due to flammable contents and more open design plans, which increase how fast the fire grows.

In a crazy videotaped experiment, researchers at the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) recorded how fire spreads in a room with modern synthetic vs natural furniture. The room with synthetic furnishings — polyester curtains, polyurethane couch stuffing, etc — reached “flashover” in less than 5 minutes. Flashover happens when the temperature reaches over 600 degrees C (~1100 degrees F), causing the remaining “fuel” (walls, carpet, your stuff) to ignite almost simultaneously.

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to materials chemistry that we’ll save for another time, and I’m not saying to ditch the IKEA couch. The key takeaway here is that when in doubt, GET OUT!

Fighting Fire With Fire… and Regs, Science, and Technology?

Obviously, undoing the effects of climate change and decades of built-up vegetation is much harder than installing smoke detectors and sprinkler systems. There’s also no way to completely prevent wildfires, nor would we want to — they are a critical part of many ecosystems.

That said, wildfires that are blown into communities are especially dangerous and damaging — like the Marshall Fire in Louisville and Superior, the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, and the Tubbs Fire that burned a significant part of Santa Rosa. Reducing wildfire risk at the Wildland-Urban-Interface is the first place to focus efforts.

Data-driven policy and regulatory updates are the most cost-effective and obvious place to start and are something that every politician in the western states should have on their shortlist. These tools have reduced structural fires significantly, after all. The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) launched a new effort in early 2021 called Outthink Wildfire, which will focus on five areas that the NFPA deems most critical (paraphrased):

  1. Require construction materials for homes and business in the wildland urban interface (WUI) to be more flame resistant.
  2. Enforce current codes and smart land-use practices for buildings in wildfire-prone areas.
  3. Train fire departments in the WUI to respond safely and effectively to wildfires, which have very different behaviors and risks.
  4. Increase resources for vegetative fuel management on public land.
  5. Further educate the public to do less dumb stuff that starts fires.

Making structures safer and easier to prevent in case of a wildfire just makes sense. However, more is needed if we don’t want to return to the 2020 fire season (or worse).

In addition to the very human costs of increasingly destructive fires, property losses (already at tens of billions of dollars per year) will continue to increase. Between insurance markets and possible increases in federal spending to maintain public lands, it is becoming easier to see a compelling market for new wildfire mitigation technologies emerge.

There are many angles to attack. Fire prevention starts with inventorying and understanding the status of fuels. This is currently done by hand — some groups are trying to automate this process with new sensor technologies, robots, satellites, and/or AI. Land management practices need to be updated for new conditions. Products to facilitate routine inspection and maintenance of electric lines and equipment are also interesting areas.

The high fuel load across forests in the western US is also part of the problem, a legacy from a hundred years of trying to put out every fire. Reducing the amount of burnable fuel should reduce risk, particularly near communities and roads. (The logistics of this are a considerable but interesting challenge.) Distributed facilities could potentially help support some of the communities most vulnerable to fires.

Fire detection tools may evolve from watchtowers and mounted cameras to distributed sensors, satellites, or even balloons. Updating evacuation plans based on current traffic and weather conditions (wind direction, how fast the fire is growing) could be a lifesaver. Fire response could benefit from better equipment for firefighters, and more effective ways of extinguishing fire from a distance without negative environmental impact — new fire retardants or even drones. Again, all of these could benefit from additional intelligence to prevent fire where needed and allow healthy or managed fires to burn. Finally post fire work is needed to allow wildlands and communities to recover.

While all of these are important, early fire detection or response (drones, etc) seem most likely to be economically viable via insurance markets. Fuel reduction (forest wastes to products) is also an area to watch — if the company can show consistent feedstock sources, low harvesting, transportation and processing costs, and high-value products with sustained demand. (Easy right?)

Mitigating the devastation (and ideally environmental and health effects) of wildfires has the potential to pay dividends on multiple axes, despite considerable challenges. Many of the solutions needed will not produce the financial returns that are attractive to traditional VCs, despite benefits on other axes (i.e. to public health and the environment). In addition to entrepreneurs and smart policymakers, this problem needs “investors” looking for many types of returns — local communities; state, federal and private landowners; insurers; and project finance — as well as private capital.

A final word on recovery: many links to help those affected by the Marshall Fire can be found here. If you are interested in donating, two key organizations are the Boulder County Community Foundation (donation site) and Colorado Gives (donation site)

Want to add to this conversation? Please reach out to me at info_AT_primemoverslab.com, subject: Wildfire blog.

Prime Movers Lab invests in breakthrough scientific startups founded by Prime Movers, the inventors who transform billions of lives. We invest in seed-stage companies reinventing energy, transportation, infrastructure, manufacturing, human augmentation and agriculture.

Sign up here if you are not already subscribed to our blog.

Prime Movers Lab

Backing breakthrough scientific inventions transforming…