A Modest Proposal to Address Wildfire Danger in the American West

Richard W. DeVaul
5 min readNov 28, 2018
Wildfire in Montanna, image by John McColgan


I’ve been a California resident since January of 2010. In that relatively short time I’ve seen first-hand the effects of a changing climate on life in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I arrived in 2010, winters were still the foggy season, the Sierras regularly had a snow pack through the spring and early summer, and wildfire was limited to a summer-autumn season. Now, droughts are the norm and the fire-season doesn’t really end in California.

There are many things we need to do collectively in response to the changing climate, including improved forest management and reconsidering the relationship between development and wildland. And while I’m an educated lay person, I’m not an expert in forest management or urban planning and I don’t have specific recommendations in these areas.

Project Loon luanch event, Christchurch NZ 2013

I am an expert in a range of technologies relating to sensing, drones, and large, distributed, systems. I’ve worked on a range of autonomous and semi-autonomous systems over the years, and was the first technical architect of a globe-spanning stratospheric communications network based on high-altitude balloons. I know something about aerospace, earth observation, and engineering systems at the scale of a state or the globe.

It is from this perspective that I believe I have some suggestions about what we can do to make California and the entire West safer in the coming decades of the Anthropocene.

So, what’s the problem to be solved?

The fundamental problem to be solved is the impact of wildfire as measured in the cost of human lives and infrastructure damage. And while there are many ways to approach this problem, one space of solutions involves detecting fires sooner, when they are very small, and responsing faster, while the fire is still a local, easily contained event.

Detecting and responding to fire quickly is particularly a challenge when fires start in remote, difficult to access terrain. Even when fire fighters know where the fire is, they may not be able to get…

Richard W. DeVaul

Founder, mad scientist, moonshot launcher. Writes on innovation, entrepreneurship, and social/queer issues. ex-CTO of Google X. @rdevaul on twitter