Preparing homes for wildfires is big business that's only getting started
As the Blue Ridge Fire blazed across California's Orange County in 2020, O.P. Almaraz stared at the menacing glow on the horizon and evacuated his family to a hotel. The next morning, he walked out of his room into a jam-packed, buzzing, chaotic lobby.
"I thought, holy smokes, everyone is wondering if their house is going to make it, and there's so much uncertainty," he says. "And that's when I'm like, okay, I've got to commit to figuring out how can homes survive, so we're not just praying that our homes make it."
Almaraz — a longtime home-restoration expert whose crews clean and renovate homes after a disaster — is now part of a nascent but fast-growing industry of wildfire preparedness and mitigation that includes everything from home retrofits to AI-powered smoke detectors.
Why only now? Experts point to advances in technology and drastic calls by home insurers, who are hiking rates or quitting risky areas altogether. And, of course, the growing threat of climate-related weather disasters.
Extreme wildfires are burning where they didn't used to. Cities unfamiliar with smoke get shrouded in an orange haze. Wildfires have been most damaging in the last few years, fueled in part by human-caused climate change. An estimated 46 millionhomes in the U.S., valued at $1.3 trillion, now face wildfire risks.
"Now everybody is concerned, everybody is aware of wildfire," says Seth Schalet, CEO of the nonprofit Santa Clara County FireSafe Council. "And so there's a lot of folks jumping into that kind of home entrepreneurial market. ... It's kind of the wild west now."
AI powers new wildfire technology
Carsten Brinkschulte, the CEO of Germany-based Dryad Networks, holds up what looks like an oversized luggage tag. It's a solar-powered gas sensor that hangs on a tree trunk and tries to detect a fire while it's very small.
Dryad sells the sensors to cities and utilities — 10,000 of them since launch in January, he says — and has a a pilot program with Cal Fire.
"I'm surprised, to be honest, that they're not more trials" with other companies, Brinkschulte says. "I would hope that there would be more Dryads. This is such a pressing problem that we need more competition."
He does have rivals, including a few U.S. firms. Funding from venture capital and the government is now flowing into wildfire prep technology. Companies are pitching high-end air filters and outdoor sprinkler systems to homeowners who can afford it.
Startups are building early detectors that look for fire based on gases, humidity and heat. A big driver is artificial intelligence, which is being trained to distinguish a fire that's starting to smolder from lingering smoke, for example, or even a diesel truck driving by.
There is plenty of testing of the new technology, but little regulation.
As insurers balk, homeowners reconsider their responsibility
In Southern California, Almaraz's new company, Allied Disaster Defense, is now all about preparing homes to face a wildfire — a business that he says has grown almost 30% in the past year.
"Most people that contact us do not contact us because they're concerned about their home, their safety," he says. "They contact us because the insurance is going up."
Insurers canceled or declined to renew almost 242,000 "homeowners and dwelling fire policies" in 2021, according to the latest California data.
This particularly has affected people living in neighborhoods considered at high risk because they edge into wildlands, often called the WUI (pronounced "wooey" for "wildland-urban interface"). Federal fire authorities estimate that close to a third of the U.S. population now lives in these communities.
Some insurance companies give people a break if they invest in home hardening. These are long-recommended techniques: fire-resistant roofs, covered gutters, no plants or mulch within 5 feet of the house, mesh on air vents that can stop embers from flying inside.
Almaraz's firm offers to do it all or teach people to do it themselves. He says very few crews offer comprehensive wildfire home prep yet. And so, his company has started to train other contractors, even eyeing a franchise to other Western states by next year.
"We as a society are just starting to accept this notion that there is some degree of accountability on us as individual homeowners for living in these risk areas," says Kimiko Barrett, wildfire research and policy analyst at the nonprofit Headwaters Economics. "Because the scale of risk is so great now, we cannot avoid it."
On one sweltering afternoon in a verdant neighborhood northeast of Los Angeles, April Schwartz with Allied Disaster Defense is doing something beyond conventional home hardening: The former firefighter is spraying landscaping with fire retardant.
The street, dotted with highly flammable palm trees, backs into a lush forest that cascades off the San Gabriel Mountains, where a wildfire raged in 2020. The liquid sloshing in a jug on her back is similar to what fire crews might drop from the sky.
"We almost can't keep up," Schwartz says about demand for her company's home-hardening and fire-retardant services. "But that's a good thing."
As the risk of wildfires reaches new places, the business is only heating up.
NPR's Liz Baker contributed to this report.
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