Why is California burning?


Gopi Mattel, based in silicon valley, serves as 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.


The acrid smell of smoke can be felt from our houses even if we are 50 miles away from the fire. And we have felt that frequently this year in California.

It is not news to anyone that California has had another record-shattering year of fires. Not only California, but in most of the Western states fires are setting records.

Fires destroyed 1,600,000 acres of California in all of 2018. But the record was completely shattered in 2020 in just a duration of four weeks — and that too in the non-fire season.

Native Americans managed the fires by setting periodic fires which used to burn up underbrush before it can accumulate too much.

The Forest Service from its inception in 1905 did not follow that path. Instead it decided to fight the fires as they happened.

Underbrush has accumulated over all this time and has set the stage for devastating fires. The dry years prime the forest for any spark to take hold.

The other agency, CalFire, can act on fires but cannot act on reducing the fuel.

But that is not the only reason for the fire devastation. Logging businesses see fires as impacting their bottom line and are against it. Urban sprawl and the settlement of wilderness areas have exposed more forests and people to damage and danger.

California has a Mediterranean style climate and the last few years have been getting hotter and drier, with climate change a contributing factor.

Dry hot winds like the Santa Ana winds create a devastating ability for the fire to spread fast.

The bark beetle infestation that killed 100 to 150 million trees has created a lo of easily combustible full tree-size fuel sticks in the forest.

People have become less tolerant of smoke and particulate matter, especially with growing rates of asthma and allergy. These pressures are stopping the fire-fighting organizations from doing effective long-term strategies.

The fires are so large and unusual that existing models of fire prediction and response are not effective. Fires are giving rise to 17,000 feet tall columns of flame, rotating above 140pmh.

These are Firenados; they can uproot trees and suck in material to burn. from every direction on the compass. They can also spit out burning firebrands in every direction and create a fast-expanding perimeter of fire.

Lives and billions of wealth are being lost. The Carr fire caused $1.6 billion in damage. Eighty-five people were killed in Camp Fire in Paradise. It also destroyed 18,000 structures.

This year’s fire damage estimate has exceeded $10 billion. People are losing their houses and businesses. Many are losing their jobs. Insurance companies are stopping coverage of houses. The outlook is grim for people and the economy.

Fire experts believe the key long-term solution is to clear out the underbrush in the forests by doing controlled burns.

The other option of clearing out underbrush is manual and expensive work given the amount of forests. And controlled burns as a policy has significant opposition even as steps are being taken to implement it.

We actually need a lot of solutions to reduce the impact of these disasters.

Governments have made it a priority to invest in fire management. There are businesses that are involved in products to fight fires. Venture capital, which is particularly suited for innovative, large-scale ideas, is largely absent at the table.

An innovative NGO has put together cell phones, solar arrays and free software to identify where poaching or illegal logging takes place. What if a similar solution that could sense the sounds and temperature of fire could be produced and placed on tops of trees every few miles?

We can triangulate when a fire starts almost immediately and respond before the fires become uncontrollable.

What if there was

  • A fire-resistant wrapper shield that can be easily deployed on house. Houses on the forest interface can have this ready and be able to deploy and save most houses.

  • A proceed where underbrush can be mulched and converted to particle logs for bulk wood usage. Firms can clear out underbrush for free or low cost as they can resell the particle logs.

Venture Capital and startup founders have a great opportunity to solve this problem and reap great rewards.

P.S. This cover article in Wired portrays the USA as undergoing a sea-change in its disaster outlook