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Main article: Wildfire

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As California burns, climate goals may go up in smoke—even after the flames are out

01:00 | 9 August

Julie Cart Contributor
Julie Cart is a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter who writes for CALmatters, a non-profit, non-partisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

As crews across California battle more than a dozen wildfires—including the largest in state history—the blazes are spewing enough carbon into theair to undo some of the good done by the state’s climate policies.

What’s even worse: Climate-warming compounds that will be released by the charred forests long after the fires are extinguished may do more to warm up the planet than the immediate harm from smoky air.

Scientists say that only about 15 percent of a forest’s store of carbon is expelled during burns. The remainder is released slowly over the coming years and decades, as trees decay.That second hit of carbon, experts say, contains compounds that do more to accelerate climate change than those from the original fire. And future fires over previously burned ground could make climate prospects even more bleak.

“The worst possible situation is the fire that comes through and kills everything,” said Nic Enstice, regional science coordinator for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. “Then, ten or fifteen years later, another fire comes through and releases all the carbon left in the trees on the ground. That’s really bad.”

It’s a scenario that could explode at any time. Enstice cited a research paper published this year that laid out a chilling tableau: California has more than a 120 million dead trees strewn around its mountain ranges, with the southern Sierra hardest hit.

When fires hit those downed trees, the state will begin to experience “mass fires” spewing plumes of carbon. The resulting conflagrations, according to the researcher, will be almost unimaginable.

“The emissions from those fires will be unlike anything we will have ever seen,” Enstice said. “And you won’t be able put it out.”

Computing the carbon released from the the fires so far this year will not happen soon. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration flies planes through smoke plumes, gathering data, but air traffic over wildfires is tightly restricted. Scientific research is not a top priority when fires are threatening towns.

But some preliminary data is available now.

One method uses inventories of existing forests—surveying how many trees and which type. Those records are updated every 10 years. Researchers then overlay infrared images captured from satellites that show what’s burning and at what intensity. From that, predictions can be made about carbon emissions on any given day. Scientists say that emissions from burned forests are one of the most virulent types, called black carbon.

According to the most recent accounting from the state Air Resources Board, California’s annual black carbon discharge—excluding wildfires—are equal to emissions from about 8 million passenger vehicles driven for one year. Not a small number. But when the state calculates the same annual average of black carbon coming solely from wildfires, it’s the equivalent of nearly 19 million additional cars on the road.

With year-round fire seasons and fire intensity off the charts, state officials admit that wildfires could set backCalifornia’s myriad policies to offset the impacts of climate change. “It’s significant,” Enstice said. “We don’t have a lot of data to measure yet, we’re still using primitive tools. But everyone is gearing up to study this.”

This article is republished courtesy of CALMatters. 



A digitizing David takes on photo-scanning Goliath

19:53 | 29 December

 Mitch Goldstone loves photo scanning. His business, ScanMyPhotos, does what it says on the tin: you send photos to the company and, using high speed scanners and special software, his team digitizes your photos, sticks them onto a USB key or online, and sends them back. He is proud of his business. Thanks to his scanners he’s helped users save their photos from tornadoes, floods, and theft. Read More



Ex-­Googlers raise $2.5 million for Pattern, a friendly “workspace” for salespeople

18:34 | 24 May

Pattern, a year-old, Redwood City, Ca.- based startup, wants to become a kind of external brain that lightens the load of managing customer relationships for salespeople. Felicis Ventures, SoftTech VC, and First Round Capital have just furnished the company with $2.5 million in seed funding toward that end, too.

You can kind of see why, given the problem Pattern is trying to tackle. According to founders Derek Draper, Zack Moy, and Josh Valdez — all ex-Googlers — a salesperson’s book of business produces more than 5,000 “signals” in any given month, creating information overload. The tools that many use can exacerbate the problem, too. Think email, calendar, spreadsheets, to-do lists, their CRM system, their phone.

Draper, Moy, and Valdez, who are currently running the company with five other former colleagues from Google, say they were long ago inspired to fix the problem. In fact, Draper and Valdez met at Wildfire, a social media marketing company that sold to Google in 2012. They say that there, they invested more heavily in sales operations than do most companies, including coming up with fresh tech to help Wildfire’s sales team use their time more efficiently.

“People think of salespeople as lower class citizens,” says Draper, who was a VP of sales and client services at Wildfire and is now Pattern’s CEO. “People don’t realize how hard it is. Reps are under constant pressure to meet quotas and keep management informed, and we felt like technology should lighten their load and make them smarter, not add to what they have to manage.”

Though creating new technology wasn’t their full time job at Wildfire or, later, at Google, it is now, and the online “workspace” that they’ve created seems interesting.

For example, a salesperson can inject notes into a particular field on the platform that will prime what questions she or he should ask a potential customer — after which the salesperson can easily set a reminder to follow up with that person or company.

Pattern’s productivity suite also provides prompts that make following up with a contact easy. Using a salesperson’s contact list and other archived information, it will essentially create thank-you notes that can be fired off with the click off a tab. It will automatically confirm meetings ahead of time. Using some machine learning, it will also suggest to salespeople when they should be following up with a certain contact if it’s not already in their calendar to do so. Not last, Pattern will notice when people who you are working with don’t exist in Salesforce and whether you’d like to invite them, a feature that management seems to like particularly, says Draper.

Of course, Pattern isn’t the only company trying to make salespeople more efficient and to prevent them from dropping the ball. At least 300 startups are trying to tackle some form of sales productivity.

Draper acknowledges that Pattern has some steep competition, but he also says that feedback from the 70 active users that have been helping Pattern shape its product has been great. (Early users include the cloud-monitoring service DataDog and the customer service platform Zendesk.)

Pattern, which plans to sell to mid-size businesses, is also targeting a highly fragmented market.

Here, too, Draper seems undaunted, noting that Wildfire also served the mid-market and that his team has plenty of experience building highly functional sales cycles for that space. More specifically, the company is taking a bottom-ups approach, hoping that end users will turn on its product in large enough numbers that management will be compelled to take a look. (As for pricing, it isn’t ready to disclose that just yet.)

For those who may be interested in learning more, the company is allowing access to the platform on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s offering the first 100 TechCrunch readers who sign up priority access, too. Click here for more information.



Tech’s Role In Fighting Wildfires

22:00 | 13 September

Joe CecinCrunch Network Contributor

Joe Cecin is president and COO of Nervve.

How to join the network

“Burn rates” are perennially on the minds of Silicon Valley VCs and entrepreneurs. But what about the very real burn rates that ravish the surrounding California countryside, and other areas, each year?

Currently there are five states that are each battling more than 10 major wildfires, with seven million acres burned so far. This is not a flash in the pan (no pun intended). Each year, the situation worsens. The average number of large wildfires occurring annually is up 78 percent since the 1980s. As a result, resources for fighting these fires are badly stretched. In spite of having nearly 29,000 firefighters battling the Western blazes, often at great personal risk, it has not been nearly enough to contain many of the fires. The National Guard has even been called out to augment firefighting staffs.

The trend is not going away. More firefighters and more firefighting equipment are, of course, needed. With the situation seemingly getting worse and not better, how can we turn a losing battle on its head? One way is to apply some of our biggest tech innovations.

Big data is already being used to understand and predict wildfire spread, but how can some of the other big technology trends potentially help?

Game Of Drones

We’re starting with a controversial one, given that Californian wildfire fighters are currently complaining about hobbyists flying drones close to low-flying firefighting aircraft, forcing planes to be grounded, thus causing more countryside to burn. Certainly, drone pilots need to play by the rules and follow FAA guidelines, especially in emergency situations, but what if the power and mobility of drones could be unleashed to fight fires? Those drones are capturing hours of videos, but what is being done with the video and images?

Tracking the status of vegetation (the fuel) and developing conditions is difficult across vast expanses of undeveloped, often inaccessible land. Drones offer tremendous opportunity from the hours of videos and imagery they capture, enabling authorities to spot conditions ripe for wildfires.

What if the power and mobility of drones could be unleashed to fight fires?

More accurate information about conditions on the ground leads to better situational awareness for county fire departments, and will help improve the modelling which facilitates the identification of risk early enough to take action. Getting a complete aerial picture cost-effectively and without endangering humans could increase the efficacy of preemptive burning, reducing the impact to lives and property.

Further into the future, artificial intelligence playing a larger role to fight fires on the ground will become commonplace. The complexity of navigating varied and often hazardous terrain is not an insignificant one for roboticists, but it is one that’s already been tackled for military applications, such as bomb sniffing and searching caves for terrorists. It is not much of a stretch to believe that such technologies will soon help in the battle to prevent and contain wildfires.

A Gold Star For Machine Learning

With the images and videos captured by drones and also by strategically placed cameras on the ground, FEMA and fire departments can now step beyond GIS/mapping techniques, which are purely dependent on manual updates. Machine learning innovation is powering highly advanced, automatic object recognition that can identify in seconds patterns that take human analysts hours to search and chart out on a map (even with advanced GIS software).

The technology already exists to take vast repositories of videos and imagery and pull out the proverbial needle in a haystack. It’s the same visual search technology that’s being used by security agencies and law enforcement to spot imminent threats and locate dangerous suspects. It’s being used by sportswear brands to see how often their logo is used in sponsorships. It’s not a giant leap to teach these systems how to spot patterns and conditions from images of vegetation that commonly lead to a fire breaking out or spreading rapidly.

Internet Of (Wild) Things

Deploying sensors on specially designed networks to monitor conditions, detect changes early and predict outcomes can provide an even richer data set than aerial monitoring.

The challenges are immense, given the sheer number of sensors needed and the vast expanses of land to cover, but this idea has been successfully trialed in Europe. Furthermore, there are existing networks in place that make for a good starting point. Researchers at UCSD have been able to leverage existing sensors deployed within forests by fire stations to supplement an array of other data and create real-time analytics systems.

Smokey Bear And Social Media

Crowdsourced information pulled from social media has been seen as a helpful tool to identifying the spread of wildfires and helping to deploy forces. Monitoring social posts for mentions or pictures of fire or smoke from at-risk locations could be an important data stream, thus creating an early warning system when wildfires start or spread. This could become particularly useful, given the increasing number of people choosing to live in and around the periphery of at-risk land.

We humans are the weakest link in the chain, causing 9 out of 10 wildfires.

However, social media’s greatest contribution could come in the form of the advanced targeting it offers to advertisers. For more than 70 years, Smokey Bear has been successfully educating outdoorsy Americans on how to prevent forest fires. That’s important because, as we all know, we humans are the weakest link in the chain, causing 9 out of 10 wildfires.

Authorities can now target location-savvy PSAs (public service announcements)/educational ads to social media users along the periphery of at-risk areas using geo targeting, raising awareness and hopefully reducing the human risk of starting wildfires. Authorities also could target PSAs based on interests, like to the 20-25 million people on Facebook with an expressed interest in camping. The ability to cost-effectively inform and educate for prevention at scale has never been greater.

If we can apply to the worsening problem of destructive wildfires some of the innovations from the tech sector’s best-funded, exciting and emerging technologies, we may have to opportunity to make a huge difference in prevention, detection and response. And that is no flash in the pan.

Featured Image: Dmytro Gilitukha/Shutterstock


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