As wildfires get hotter and more common, these start-ups are helping people protect their homes

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  • Homeowners are looking for new technology that can harden their properties against natural disasters that are increasing in frequency as a result of global warming.
  • According to Pitchbook, about $26.7 billion has been invested in climate technology since November in 2021, up from $15.3 billion in 2020 and $11.8 billion in 2019.
  • According to a 2016 report by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, climate change poses a risk of up to $35 trillion of real estate assets by 2070, particularly with homes and buildings.

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In October 2017, Anil Arora sat helplessly in San Francisco as the Tubbs Fire raged near his home in Calistoga, California.

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Arora watched through the ring camera as the fire worked through his yard before devouring the rest of his property. That night, Arora and his family could smell the smoke from the fire that burned down their home more than 70 miles away.

“It was just a shocking sight,” Arora said. “The day before, we just sat down and discussed it and said, ‘You know what? We’re going to rebuild.'”

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As the family plans to rebuild them, Arora knew he wanted roof sprinklers for the house so that it would never burn down again. After scouring Google for alternatives, Arora found Frontline Wildfire Defense, a start-up that had just built a sprinkler system, just what she was looking for. Two years later, they had a new home with a dozen sprinklers on the roof, capable of shooting water and foam up to 30 feet in each direction.

Aurora is one of a growing number of homeowners turning to climate tech start-ups to harden their properties against natural disasters that are increasing in frequency and power as a result of global warming.

Frontline CEO Harry Stetter said, “California’s wildfires are “something we’ll see anyway, regardless of climate change and population, but when you add climate change to the equation it’s likely to start fires.” enhances.” in funding.

In August, the UN climate panel put out a dire report calling for immediate action. The agency warns that limiting global warming to 1.5 °C or even 2 °C above pre-industrial levels over the next two decades without rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions is “beyond reach”. ” Will happen. The report says that at 2 °C, extreme heat will often reach critical tolerance limits for agriculture and health.

Arora said, “We had a house burnt down, so it’s very real for us. It’s not an ideological thing.”

As homeowners ponder how they can protect their homes, entrepreneurs and investors are starting to invest their time and money in this largely untapped market.

“Right now we have the opportunity to let those best and brightest minds go and work on something that’s really worthwhile,” said Greg Smithies, partner and head of climate tech at venture capital firm Fifth Wall. To date, Fifth Wall has raised over $300 million for its Climate Tech Fund.

Through November, more venture capital has been invested in climate technology in 2021 than in any year, according to data provided by Pitchbook. According to Pitchbook, about $26.7 billion has been invested in climate technology in 2021, up from $15.3 billion in 2020 and $11.8 billion in 2019.

With homes and buildings in particular, climate change poses a risk of up to $35 trillion of real estate assets by 2070, Smithis noted, citing 2016 report by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“The opportunity for a start-up here to make a complete stash of cash, given the size of the market, is easily much bigger than the opportunities we saw here,” Smithies said.

peace of mind against fire

Stetter told CNBC that the purpose of Frontline’s system is to moisten a property, hydrating the flammable vegetation around a home and building materials, thereby reducing the potential for fires. The system can be activated by flipping a switch indoors or through the Frontline mobile app. If the WiFi or cell connection goes down because of a fire, the system can also connect to the frontline via satellite, ensuring that the customer can activate the sprinklers no matter what, Stetter said.

The company also plans to release a new version of its app in December that will provide comprehensive wildfire safety information in real time to anyone. It includes a map that shows wildfires, evacuation warnings, safe to refill orders and status, the company said.

“You don’t need to be the system owner to use the new app,” Stetter said. “It’s really to reduce the risk to anyone living in wildfire areas.”

According to Stetter, the cost of defense systems is about $10,000, although systems for the frontline average between $15,000 and $25,000. Arora said that he decided to rebuild the house because of the emotional attachment to his family, where his children grew up. He said it was good enough to pay $10,000 for a fire defense sprinkler.

“It’s an emotional investment and a financial investment. Our children are connected to it,” Arora said. “You want to make sure you’re doing everything you can.”

Arora had turned on the system to wet his property a few months ago when a fire broke out nearby, but he is yet to rely on the system to douse the fire. But perhaps most important, the system is something Aurora can do rather than passively observe.

“What it does for me the most is peace of mind,” Arora said.

reduce risk

Tech worker Sylvia Wu and her husband were on a road trip in September 2020 when they became concerned. Wildfires had begun to spread in Santa Cruz County, California, and they were getting uncomfortably close to their home in Coralitos.

Fortunately, nothing happened, but in June 2021 the couple decided to take steps to protect their home. Wu got in touch with her former colleague at Uber, Jahaan Khanna, a serial entrepreneur whose latest start-up, Firemaps, helps homeowners harden their homes against wildfires.

Firemaps use technology such as drones, computer vision, satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to analyze a home and determine which parts are most at risk for wildfires and to improve their resilience. What steps can be taken?

Firemaps creates a 3D model of the home and presents the homeowner with a list of recommendations. After the homeowner decides which ones to accept, Firemaps places the jobs for bidding for its network of contractors, all of whom have vetted it first. Firemaps does not charge homeowners for the service, but does charge a referral fee from contractors.

Khanna said he and his co-founders felt that not enough was being done to protect homes from the increasing risks of climate change.

“The founding team lives in California. We are dealing with wildfires ourselves,” Khanna said. “It didn’t seem like there were many people working on the practical impact of climate change in the here and now. It seemed like an opening and a need that we could fill.”

Firemaps determined that Wu and her husband could take several steps to protect their home.

This includes raising the canopy of trees around the structure, cutting down a bamboo tree, removing a large tree right next to the house, reducing the size of ornamental shrubs and grass around the house, and laying down decomposed granite. which is not flammable. ,

Wu said, “I always meant to go out there with a tape measure and measure things, but, you know, you get busy, you get lazy and I’ve never done that.”

Wu and her husband decided to go ahead with the recommendations, and after two full days of work, the contractors were able to complete the work. With his friend’s exemption, Wu said he paid $4,000 for the job.

“If the fire gets really bad no one can stop your house from burning down,” Wu said. “There’s always a chance of this, but I just wanted to make sure I took all the precautions I could. Nothing is really under my control beyond that.”

Once the task is done, Firemaps does another 3D rendering of the house. Khanna said the company verifies that the work was done properly and notifies the homeowner’s insurance as well as the local fire department and any other entities that need to know.

Because climate change is a serious global problem, Khanna said, people have to take steps to protect themselves.

“The first instinct of people is to walk away. But people need to heed the fact that this is a massive crisis, and it is not going to go away,” Khanna said. “Absent us doing all that hard work, it’s going to get worse. We have to deal with this problem or it will get worse.”

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