How the U.S. fights forest fires and why innovation is needed

Some of the largest wildfires ever recorded are raging across the west. Millions of acres have burned in California, Oregon and Washington. Smoke has reached as far as Europe. 

Firefighters like Michael Seaton, who lost his home in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, have worked more than a month straight.

“So you’re out on the line for two days and you’re sleep deprived out there. So I’ve seen people standing up with their eyes closed and they’re basically asleep,” said Seaton, a CAL FIRE engineer.

“All of this is on the heels of wildfire emergencies in 2019, 2018 and 2017 that points to the pattern of how climate warming is predisposing large landscapes to unprecedented fire activity,” said Doug Morton, Chief of NASA’s Biospheric Sciences Laboratory.

Heat waves and drought have left a thick layer of dry vegetation easily sparked by people and lightning. Although nearly 85% of wildland fires in the U.S. are caused by humans, people continue moving to fire-prone areas in droves.

“How are we as a country spending our money? Are we going to have an F-35 dogfight with the Russians or the Chinese? Maybe, but the more likely thing is we’re going to continue to burn our citizens over,” said Graham Kent, a seismologist who runs a system of cameras that help quickly assess fires.

New tools to fight fires

For decades, firefighting has been slow to change. Now, Kent is among a handful of mostly small groups bringing new solutions to the way we fight, detect and prevent wildfires.

With this season’s fires burning within miles of Silicon Valley, home to the world’s tech giants and some of their billionaire leaders, Kent and others are calling for more money, and ideas, to stop the trend.

“They should be involved in wide scale fuel reduction