The Wildfire Epidemic: Solutions from Data, Tech, & Ancestral Knowledge

Anna speaks with Peter Shannon, founder of Radius Capital, about the innovations in flight and other technologies that can help us better detect and respond to wildfires. Learn more about fire safety and preparedness at ready.gov/wildfires.


The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.



[Peter Shannon:] To start out, I'll give a little bit about my background. I have been an investor in early stage technologies over the last 15 years. Originally, I'm an engineer by training. I began to focus on clean tech, impact, and sustainability type [of] investments early in my career.


One of the areas where I gravitated over those years was in solving problems in transportation and mobility, in particular, because that area lends itself so well, and so interestingly, to software, data, and systems-level type technologies, which is where my technical background is.


Towards 2017 or 2018, having seen some of the innovations in the drone space and the impact of geospatial data, we started to see a convergence of those technologies. They were getting to thresholds where they were going to have a really important and profound impact on how we think about moving things through the air. That has been the focus of my current effort, which is called Radius Capital, looking at the early stage opportunities in the technologies that are enabling new types of flight.


Wildfires — and public safety more broadly — has been an area that we came across, and that we started to think really carefully about in terms of where this technology could make an impact. That, combined with living in California, being here in the Bay Area, and experiencing the worsening wildfire seasons, in particular over the last four years... led to us putting our heads together to see if we can facilitate the people who are closest to the space — the people who have the domain knowledge and the people who are closest to new technologies — facilitate a place where that cross pollination of ideas and of information can happen, and where coordinated development to apply these new capabilities can happen and what we can do to facilitate.


We don't approach this with any preconceived notions as to what the technologies are going to be that change how we manage forests, and how we detect, respond, and fight wildfires.


What we are focused on is to create a simple pathway for innovators, be they established aerospace companies, or be they startups, for those innovators to connect with the domain experts, operators who are in the field, people who really understand forest management, understand wildfire risk, and how to reduce that risk prior to fire season and understand during periods of high risk how we can best detect and respond to wildfires.


In particular, thinking about how we can employ new technology to shorten the time period between a wildfire starting and us being able to respond to that wildfire because, of course, as time elapses, the wildfires grow geometrically. They become so large that fighting them becomes a weeks-long or even longer type of an effort and a great deal of resources are consumed, and of course, they cause a lot of damage.


We are looking at how we can bring new technology to bear that can affect the entire cycle of forest management and wildfire response. In particular, shorten the response periods to catch wildfires earlier, suppress them while they're still small, and change the baseline assumptions that we have around how we deal with this threat. And that has been one of the really interesting journeys that we've been on this year.


[Anna:] I would love to hear more about the technologies themselves.


[Peter Shannon:] I would say at a at a high level, the technologies that we've been working with have been sensing and geospatial data, and how we network flying systems together into solutions that might drive early detection of wildfires, logistics, and movement of goods in any type of capacity, or movement of people.


Another area of the technologies where we spent a lot of time are the enablers of this new type of flight: electric propulsion, energy management, the technologies that go into the design as well as production and scale up of these new types of electric aircraft — which often are highly automated systems — to be successful out in the real world, to have the sense of context, data, conductivity, and coordination to enable automated systems to navigate the noise and the reality of operating in a real physical world environment, and often one that is very, very dynamic.


[Anna:] I'm wondering about the communities that are located within forests that have burned down or are at risk of burning, and their perceptions around what needs to happen in the forest with regards to fire management, and whether that includes technology.


[Peter Shannon:] We're at the early stages in building out this platform, and there are a lot of things that we know that we don't know yet. What we want to do is we want to overcome what is typically a difficult pathway for new technology to organically make its way into a domain area such as wildfire mitigation.


We want to create the channels for information exchange — really, bi-directional information exchange — around new technologies and what they might mean. In doing that, we create a platform that allows the right technologies to be developed and integrated in ways that actually yield real solutions that also answer the types of questions that you have and inform people on both sides.


We created a proposal, and the proposal lays out the severity of wildfires in California in recent years, and makes the point that there's a potential for new technology — which has obviously progressed and accelerated on exponential curves — to be evaluated against the needs of forest management and wildfire mitigation to see if there are places where it can be turned into solutions that are specific to that domain.


The proposal lays out the fundamental opportunity that is there for that, and how if we did that, it could change our near-term outlook on the wildfire threat, but also be integrated with the fact that really addressing this problem has many long-term efforts as well: long-term climate mitigation efforts, and long-term forest management efforts, that we need to address — regardless of the particular technology for fire suppression that we have. The way that we are looking at this is beginning with that full-system, holistic approach.


[Anna:] I think of the firefighters who are out there risking their lives to fight these fires, and what this technology could mean for them.


[Peter Shannon:] The people who are out there who are putting their lives on the line to fight these wildfires and do the things prior to fire season that reduce fire risk as well... They deserve the best technologies to support their operational expertise. What we're thinking of is creating a technology pathway that supports them that answers their needs, that really unlocks their knowledge, their understanding of how operations really need to work in a wildfire environment.


[Anna:] I'm wondering why there hasn't been this pathway up until now. I'd like to hear more about the context that Radius is operating within.


[Peter Shannon:] Technology moves forward, but in some areas where technology is to be applied, access to that information in that domain area varies greatly. The domain information informs whether the technology is suitable, what further development the technology would need in order to be useful in that domain area, and how it gets integrated into a meaningful, realistic solution that answers that need.


There can be huge hurdles in getting into certain areas where the government might be the sole customer of the technology and the sole operator in that domain area. For instance, fighting wildfires is dominated in that way. The natural barriers to technology being adapted into those uses can be very high.


There certainly have been attempts by individual companies, and by smaller groups within the wildfire community as well, to find ways to employ new technology, to solve one piece of the problem, or to change one part of the overall wildfire and forest management picture. Those efforts are indications of the potential for a much larger impact if we created a more purposeful, systematic approach to bringing new technology into the space. That is what we are endeavoring to do here, and hopefully, realize a really big impact from it in the not-too-distant timeframe.


We think that there are some applications of sensing and data that can be realized as soon as next fire season. There are others that might take a few years. But, once we set up this ability to lower those barriers to the insights and real world experience, and to the ability to develop, test, and create actual solutions for the space… we see more evidence that this is going to have a huge impact.


There's a real opportunity to build an organization that is essentially a public-private partnership, that creates the ability to capture a lot of this operational domain knowledge from the forest management and wildfire space, and be a place where everybody can connect, work together more efficiently, and understand how each of their pieces fit into a bigger picture.


We are at the beginning of this process. We have created a proposal. We've presented it to the California government and begun to interface with CalFire officials. We have also gotten buy-in from NASA, especially on the aeronautics research side.


[Anna:] Let’s dive into a specific example of one of the technologies that you feel like could be implemented maybe next fire season or within the next few years.


[Peter Shannon:] Certainly. One of those technologies that is further along and that has been tested in some operational scenarios, has been using unmanned aircraft systems, using drones to fly and collect data about forests to understand the wildfire potential in those forests — understanding the biomass that is in the forest, the fire potential that it represents, and if there were a wildfire in that area, where and how quickly would it spread.


Likewise, those same types of platforms have been tested and evaluated for real-time detection of wildfire ignition events, looking at how that sensing platform potentially gets integrated into a decision loop that understands there was a fire that was detected; determines if this was a fire that was unplanned, that requires a response; and if so, how to dispatch that response.


That is a whole question that has been explored in pieces. With further development and more operational experience, it can be a key piece of reducing the response time.


Another area where there's a lot of potential work is to create a day-and-night and all-weather capability for delivering either water or fire retardant onto a fire — avoiding current limitations around being able to fight a fire when winds are high, or fight a fire at night. If we can develop a set of capabilities to do that, and to do that rapidly, it gives us yet another set of tools to respond to a fire more quickly and suppress it before it has grown to unmanageable size.


[Anna] Really inspired to hear that not only are people working on this, and that there's an intentional effort to be really collaborative.


[Peter Shannon:] We think that that collaboration is going to yield so much in terms of new ideas, and actionable ideas, by connecting these communities together, by creating a place where that innovation can occur and where it can be done in the context of a system-wide roadmap and real tools to get out into the field and to start operationalizing these technologies.


We're convinced that in a variety of ways, we're gonna see a huge impact from this. We're very optimistic in terms of what this is going to yield.


[Anna:] It feels very pragmatic, but it also feels very idealistic in a realistic way.


[Peter Shannon:] That's a good way to put it. We think that that type of an approach, it sounds abstract, and perhaps it is, but that approach acknowledges that we don't know everything right now.


But we do know that if we put communities together and create a pathway for them to develop these types of things, that great things are going to happen.



Hope you found this conversation informative. If where you live is at risk for fires, check out the website ready.gov/wildfires. It has checklists for fire safety, preparation, and more.

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