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TOPSHOT – Firefighters try to control a back burn as the Carr fire continues to spread towards the towns of Douglas City and Lewiston near Redding, California on July 31, 2018. – Two firefighters were killed fighting the blaze and three people, a 70 year old woman and her two great-grandchildren age four and five, perished when their Redding home was rapidly swallowed up by flames. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)
Return to Paradise

Return to Paradise

TOPSHOT – Firefighters try to control a back burn as the Carr fire continues to spread towards the towns of Douglas City and Lewiston near Redding, California on July 31, 2018. – Two firefighters were killed fighting the blaze and three people, a 70 year old woman and her two great-grandchildren age four and five, perished when their Redding home was rapidly swallowed up by flames. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

A year ago, a Californian town burned to the ground. Now, the area’s tech pioneers are coding to prevent further catastrophe

On a pre-dawn Monday morning last month, I climbed into my car and drove north through California’s new normal.

I left behind sleeping friends who had arrived at our home in San Francisco the previous day, after a wildfire prompted them to flee their house in a nearby town. There was a taste of smoke in the air, most likely from a fire burning in the hills around the vineyards of Sonoma Country, north of the city.

Why this story?

It was the deadliest and most vicious wildfire in California’s history, obliterating an entire town. But the destruction did not stop there: in the 12 months since, 3.7 million tonnes of charred debris have been removed from the area, and another 6,190 fires have been reported to the US Forest Service.

This is an issue for the state that is not going to die out.

So what’s being done about it? Jim Giles delves into the world of AI and satellite imaging, to discover how pioneering tech could be used to save the communities living in the forest. Basia Cummings, editor 

I headed north-east, and arrived in Paradise by mid-morning. More than 20,000 people used to live in this town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, most in wood-framed houses surrounded by the oaks and conifers that thrive in the region’s deep-red soil. Early one weekday morning a year ago, a power line to the east of the town sparked a fire. The blaze spread with remarkable speed across ten miles of forested hills. Not long after, with a chaotic evacuation in progress, flames rose up out of the steep canyon that flanks the town. Residents watched churches and stores and schools burn as they fled. Close to 19,000 buildings were destroyed and 85 lives lost.

Then and now: a home burns as the Camp Fire takes hold in Paradise in 2018; and what is left of it today

Wildfires have been part of life in California for as long as humans have lived here, but something is very different now. What Californians call the new normal is anything but. Fires have torn through the edges of large towns and have bankrupted the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electricity (PG&E). They have repeatedly left millions without power, triggered air quality alerts that shut schools across the state, and have caused losses worth tens of billions of dollars. Just a year ago, I’d have dismissed as fear-mongering an article with the headline ‘It’s the End of California as We Know It’ written by a respected commentator. Now I share his fears.

It’s almost certain that other towns will suffer the same fate as Paradise, because there’s no quick fix to a problem that’s 250 years in the making and distributed over tens of millions of acres. But there are solutions, maybe even particularly Californian solutions. The recent epidemic of fires has prompted an unconventional team – Silicon Valley technologists working with forest managers – to come together to use artificial intelligence and satellite imagery to prevent them. Other experts are trying to create a radically different kind of timber industry, one that simultaneously protects and profits from forests. The state is famous for both innovation and entrepreneurship. The way to save Californian forests may be to harness both those engines of change.

After I arrived in Paradise, I met Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the local Butte County Fire Safe Council. We drove out of town, passing acres of blackened trees. She directed me to a patch of conifers that her organisation had helped thin a few months before the fire. There were almost no signs of the blaze here. The forest felt open and airy. DeAnda spread her arms and shared a rule of thumb: in a healthy forest, you can move through with your arms out wide and not touch any trees.

The forest is, in some ways, a throwback to what California looked like 250 years ago. The Native Americans who originally inhabited the mountains set fires as they departed for lower land every autumn, to clear away brush and make next year’s hunting easier. Lightning would also ignite occasional blazes, causing most areas to burn every 15 to 25 years. These were comparatively gentle affairs: slow-moving, low-temperature fires that created space for larger trees to prosper and reduced the risk of more intense conflagrations.

European settlers took a more extractive approach. Mining and timber industries arrived in the forests, and permanent communities sprung up. Once a method for regenerating the forest, fire soon became a threat to be suppressed. As California became more populous and prosperous, a powerful fire-fighting infrastructure took shape – from public awareness campaigns and networks of local fire stations, to hilltop monitoring cameras and even a modified Boeing 747 capable of dropping 70,000 litres of water on hard-to-reach blazes. These efforts saved lives and communities. But with the frequent, small fires suppressed, forests filled with shorter, more densely packed trees, and highly flammable dead vegetation piled up.

Then global temperatures began to rise. “Add climate change and it’s a whole new ballgame,” said David Marvin, who leads business and analytics operations at Salo Sciences, a tech company that uses satellite data to help conservation. Unusually hot summers and autumns have been drying out the state’s forests, creating tinderbox conditions before the winter rains arrive. These denser and drier forests have caused a wildfire epidemic. According to records held by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which go back to the 1930s, all but one of the ten of the state’s largest fires occurred within the last 20 years.

These fires are not just larger. There is now more of what forestry scientists call “ladder fuel” – small trees that act as pathways for flames to reach forest canopies. And once a fire gets up high, things get dramatically worse. A low-lying forest fire might reach 800°C. Fires in a canopy – sometimes called “crownfires” – can exceed 1,200°C. The heat penetrates bark defences, kills large trees, and can even sterilise the soil. This can be the point of no return. Vegetation will come back, but it will be predominantly shrubs and grasses. Two-thirds of California’s forests are now at risk of such a fire.

Crownfires can also be particularly difficult to contain. “Once you have a few acres burn at once it creates its own weather,” says Marvin. A few months before the Paradise blaze, air rushing into the centre of the blaze near the town of Redding created a “firenado”: a five-kilometre-high vortex of smoke and flames. Wind speeds of more than 140mph toppled transmission lines and uprooted trees. Neil Lareau, an expert in fire behaviour at the University of Nevada Reno, told Wired: “It’s this hellscape of midnight at noon, and raining fire.”

A year on, Paradise looks eerily neat. The piles of ash and twisted metal are mostly gone. Many trees survived, as did larger buildings made from metal or concrete. For a few minutes, I wondered if I was in a part of town that had been spared. Then I noticed the gaps. Instead of leading to a house, a driveway ended in a rectangle of red soil. Neighbourhoods in other towns often have an empty lot or two, but in Paradise matters are reversed: it is mainly gaps, and the remaining houses stand out as oddities.

Then and now: an aerial view of a neighbourhood destroyed by the Camp Fire, and the many empty lots left standing today

Filling in those gaps will be enormously expensive. According to the insurance giant Munich Re, the fire that ripped through Paradise caused losses of $16 billion; statewide, the figure for 2018 was $24 billion. The impact of these huge losses – which, by comparison, are equivalent to more than ten per cent of the state’s annual budget – is being felt far beyond fire-damaged areas. PG&E, the company whose power lines sparked the Paradise fire, declared bankruptcy a couple of months later. Many homeowners have seen big hikes in costs after insurers were hit hard, reportedly paying out $1.70 in claims for every $1 they collected in premiums in California in 2018. And PG&E, understandably wary about its equipment causing more fires, has recently begun shutting down power whenever high temperatures and high winds raise the fire risk, sometimes leaving millions without electricity.

Then there’s the emotional impact. In Paradise I met Casey Taylor, executive director of the town’s Achieve Charter School. We stood in an empty lot as she pointed out where her newly opened 9th-grade classrooms had stood. Taylor told me that she grew up in Paradise and credited her teachers with helping her through a difficult childhood. Her emotional investment in her school was palpable, as was her pride in keeping it going in the nearby town of Chico. But Taylor also lost her home in the fire, and she seemed torn about whether to rebuild. With so many landmarks gone, she said she sometimes got lost in the town she had known all her life. The smell of smoke or the sound of a siren brought fears straight back. “Are we going to spend all this money and rebuild?” she asked. “And then it’s going to burn down again?”

Part of the solution to Taylor’s dilemma may be several hundred miles above her head.

Since 2013, a San Francisco-based company called Planet Labs has been sending shoebox-sized satellites into orbit. Around 150 of these devices now encircle Earth, strung out in a row like pearls on a string. The satellites constantly photograph the land masses that rotate below them, creating a composite map of the planet that is updated daily and captures objects as small as three metres across.

These images alone can transform the way forests are monitored. Many forest managers now rely on images from Nasa’s Landsat satellites, which capture coarser images and take eight days to return. But the Planet Labs images are only one means of study. Forestry researchers also equip planes with laser scanners, and have them fly back and forth across the forest roof. Their flights produce extraordinary results: maps of the top of the trees that can capture structures as small as leaves and branches.

Each technique has pros and cons. On-the-ground teams would prefer to have laser maps, because they contain data on the height and density of trees in a given area – key to mitigating vicious crownfires. But scanning all of California’s forests on a regular basis would be expensive and time-consuming. The Planet data, on the other hand, is updated daily and is relatively cheap, but lacks the fine-grained detail.

But what if there was a way of taking the satellite data and somehow transforming it into the super-high-definition laser maps that forestry managers find so valuable? This is where artificial intelligence comes in. Over the past few months, Marvin and colleagues have been pairing images from Planet Labs and other satellites with laser maps of the same patch of forest. Then, they challenge a machine-learning algorithm to extrapolate from one to the other. This is impossible at first. But over time, as the algorithm compares millions of data points from multiple pairs of images, it learns rules that eventually allow it to look at the data and spit out high-resolution maps of the same area.

These AI-generated maps are at the heart of the California Forest Observatory, a project led by Allison Wolff, a strategy consultant who is bringing her technology experience – she’s worked with Google and other big technology firms – to bear on environmental problems. Marvin works on the project’s analytics, data comes from Planet and other satellite sources, and the on-the-ground teams will be the first users when a beta version of the observatory is rolled out in May.

Eli Ilano will be one of those users. I called him recently as he drove away from his home on the shores of Lake Tahoe, a deep-blue, 20-mile-long expanse of water surrounded by forests managed by Ilano and his colleagues at the United States Forest Service. He told me that a lot of what he currently knows about the area comes from paying people to walk around them during the summer months. Forest Service teams combine that with other sources, including satellite images, as best they can. But the result is a patchwork that can require expert knowledge to navigate, and often contains data that is several years old.

The Forest Observatory data promises to be a game-changer. It could, says Ilano, be used to identify areas at particularly high risk of devastating canopy fires. Teams might then go in and reduce the risk by thinning the forest, or by lighting small, controlled fires to burn away the undergrowth. “With high-fidelity information we can really nail down which treatments give us the most bang for the buck,” adds Scott Conway, a forest conservation consultant who is advising the observatory.

The data will also help figure out the best response when fires do break out. “Say lightning hits somewhere out in the forest,” says Illano. “With the Forest Observatory we can quickly say this is burning in a dense stand or sparsely vegetated area.” That knowledge will then help shape the response. A small fire in a remote and rocky area might only require monitoring, while a blaze in dense forest near a community would justify sending in fire-fighters and possibly air support.

But even the most sophisticated AI can’t clear dead wood from forests. The Forest Observatory is a potentially transformative management tool, but it’s not a total cure. To avert the catastrophe facing California’s forests, we need to get rid of all that extra wood. “We know where we need to head,” says Wolff. “We need to restructure forests to some semblance of what they were in the past.”

Devastated forest land outside the town of Paradise

The scale of that challenge is staggering. DeAnda explained how trees can be thinned using masticators, a kind of turbo-charged lawnmower that can devour small trees. Back in the car, we did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine the costs of thinning the forests around Paradise and burning the debris. DeAnda said that she would start with communities situated on the edge of wild areas, which includes about 400,000 acres of forest in Butte County. Thinning costs around $3,000 per acre, putting the total bill at more than $1 billion. And that’s for a fraction of the forest in a single county.

There’s a good argument for asking the state government to fund such work, even if the total costs might reach the same order of magnitude as the entire state budget. But there is also more to the challenge than removing trees. Burning the removed wood, as usually happens now, releases more carbon dioxide. The wildfires of 2018 generated almost as much carbon dioxide as California’s entire electricity sector. It’s also a waste of a resource that has multiple uses. Government action is surely needed, but it would be better accompanied by solutions that leverage California’s other famous strength: a willingness to take business risks that has led to the creation of entirely new industries.

In this case, the aim would be a new kind of timber industry. There’s plenty of commercial logging of large trees in the state, but much of what is removed are “smaller trees that don’t have traditional economic value,” said Joshua Harrison who works on ecosystem-adaptation projects at the University of California, Santa Cruz. There are, however, multiple reasons for thinking that can change.

Yuccas grow along the Angeles Crest Highway, northwest of La Canada, California

Proof of this can be seen in the trucks of charcoal-like substance that an entrepreneur named Josiah Hunt is selling to Californian farmers growing grapes and vegetables. The charcoal, more accurately known as biochar, is a potent fertiliser created by heating wood in low-oxygen conditions, which causes the wood to char and retain its carbon, rather than release it. Hunt creates his biochar in a modified wood-burning electricity plant, which runs mainly on material taken from forests at a high risk of fire.

Another use for the thinned trees is mass timber – a new wood-based building material that can replace steel and concrete as a structural element. Don’t imagine thick beams of wood. Mass timber is an engineered material made by gluing or nailing sheets of wood together. Architects and engineers aren’t generally familiar with it, which makes it an expensive option for now. But it’s already been used to create buildings such as Carbon12, an eight-story, 14-unit block of flats in Portland, Oregon.

These projects can seem tiny compared to the challenge they’re designed to tackle. But every industry started small, and California has an unparalleled track record when it comes to turning smart ideas into multi-billion-dollar industries that change the world.

If this future comes to be, there will be a certain symmetry to the way in which California’s forests were saved. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans used technology – what we now call “prescribed burns” – to sustainably manage the forests they depended on. Modern Californians are now realising, horribly belatedly, that we too need to keep our forests healthy in order to survive. We can’t do so by simply leaving them alone. Instead we need to create a new kind of sustainable industry, and a new kind of symbiosis between humans and forests.

All photographs Getty Images and Planet Labs