Annual fires are the new ritual of life


Gopi Mattel

Silicon Valley-based Gopi Mattel is General Partner and CEO at Lifeboat Ventures, a venture fund that creates disaster impact mitigation startups. He is the Founder/CEO of CellarStone, Inc., Director at Founder Institute, and Advisor for Pepperdine University’s Most Fundable Companies program. The views expressed are his own.

Fires are a pervasive feature of the living world – a natural phenomenon ignited from oxygen, the very air we breathe. As natural and essential to life fire is, they also hold much capacity for destruction. And today’s near-constant and increasingly severe wildfires are taking a toll on human, animal, and plant-life alike.

As climate temperature increases, fires become the new normal.

Today, it seems that fires are the new normal. Every year we have a wildfire season that devastates huge swathes of forest lands and affects people far away. In fact, one of the greatest wildfires of our time scorched about 400,000 acres of land, making it the third-largest fire in Oregon since 1900. The state’s record-breaking triple-digit heat and severe drought only exacerbated the fire.

Not only that, but intense wildfires have been devastating even Siberia – one of the coldest places on the planet. The scale of the Siberian wildfires is now larger than all the other fires in the world combined.

As the situation worsens, more than a million acres (more than 404,000 hectares) across the country so far this year have been burned down due to large wildfires. More than 28,000 fires have burned in 2021 — the highest number of fires at this time of year since 2011. On average, we have 70,000 blazes that destroy 5.8 million acres of land on yearly basis. These wildfires are only expected to worsen over time as temperatures continue to rise and climate gets drier.

Fires happen during summers anywhere where there are forests. It is common for lightning and camp fires to be the source of many fires. But the primary catalyst for the recent scale of fires is climate change. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) reported in August 2021 that global temperatures have been increasing at an accelerated rate and has caused our planet’s temperature rise by 1-2 degrees Celsius since preindustrial times.

According to meteorologists, we are currently experiencing a megadrought in the western United States and Canada, and will continue to deal with it for years into the future. The Colorado river has dealt with unprecedented shortages and dams have been shut down. The exceptionally dry conditions we are facing are creating perfect conditions for fires to start and for them to grow beyond control.

Fires uproot trees, upend lives.

Beyond the vast tracts of land being lost to fire year after year, these near-constant wildfires are upending lives and communities in multiple ways. For one, the effect of wildfires is far-reaching – the smoke especially, taking a toll on the health of people living hundreds of miles away from the fire. The smoke from the intense wildfires raging across the Western U.S. have crawled well into Eastern states almost 3,000 miles away from the fires.

Fires are responsible for spreading pollutants like particulate matter in areas over thousands of miles away. These particles can trigger heart attacks, asthma attacks, and strokes. The smoke from fires also produces large amounts of CO (carbon monoxide) which, when inhaled, reduces the oxygen supply to the body and can result in nausea, and headaches. All of these can cause respiratory problems even in healthy people, not to mention children, older adults, and people with existing health conditions. In fact, it’s estimated that smoke from the 2020 California wildfires contributed between 1,200 to 3,000 premature deaths in people over the age of 65.

In addition to health issues, fires also have a direct impact on the lives and livelihood of countless communities. The Greek wildfires in Evia which claimed 247,000 acres of land, have rendered forest professionals such as harvesters, beekeepers, shepherds, and woodcutters unemployed and without a source of livelihood. About 800 families were also in a similar predicament.

In some more severe cases, these wildfires cause property destruction on a wide scale, and is forcing people to flee communities. The Dixie Fire alone has destroyed more than 1,200 buildings including 649 homes. The Paradise Fire contributed almost 25% of the population of homeless in nearby Chico city.

Massive amounts of fires are predicted; we must take action.

As wildfires globally are becoming more massive and commonplace, we need innovative and sustainable solutions from all sources; from government policies to startup innovation to community-wide efforts and more.

Government intervention is key to fire prevention as they hold the manpower and funding necessary to restore forests and curb the spread of wildfires on a large scale. With the right policies in place as well as improved investment in both suppression and prevention, as well as research and data analysis, we can better confront this burning issue.

Individuals can reduce the risk of fires and associated damage by hardening their properties against damage by fire. Defensible space, fire resistant materials, water availability, are all mechanisms to consider. But this is by no means an adequate solution. Many NGOs and charities have also made this a focus of their organization.  They are able to bring resources and attention to these problems.

Startups also offer new perspectives and innovative ways in addressing this growing problem. Many use technologies like drones, AI, and computer vision to replant forests and detect risks of fire.

We are exploring innovative solutions to this burning problem.

At Lifeboat Ventures, we are on the lookout for disaster impact mitigation startups. We have ideas to identify fires within minutes of starting and to protect structures against damage.  Entrepreneurs who have experience in these areas or passion to solve these problems, would be a welcome addition.