XPRIZE hosts summit for $11M wildfire competition, two years after most destructive wildfire in state history

Competition includes space detection and autonomous detection and suppression categories, summit held at McGregor Square in Denver
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Posted at 5:55 PM, Mar 19, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-20 18:22:50-04

DENVER — Some of the brightest and most environmentally conscientious firefighters, innovative thinkers and conservationists are gathering for a summit this week in downtown Denver on how to better prevent, detect and suppress catastrophic wildfires.

The group has helped to launch an $11 million, 4-year competition called XPRIZE Wildfire where individuals and companies compete in two categories: Space-based detection of wildfires and autonomous detection and response to wildfires.

The end game of the competition? “Aiming to innovate technology to end destructive wildfires,” said Andrea Santy, program director for XPRIZE Wildfire. “We want to be able to find wildfires when they’re small, because the smaller they are, the easier it is to be able to manage them.”

The summit is being held at The Rally Hotel and McGregor Square in Denver’s Ballpark district, in part because of destructive wildfires that have recently ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres in Colorado and destroyed thousands of homes.

In the space detection track, competitors use satellites to pinpoint a fire and its location in just minutes anywhere in the world.

“The term we use is 'audacious.' We need audacious, innovative ideas,” said Jay Stalnacker, retired fire management officer for Boulder County.

The idea is to incentivize individuals and technological geniuses to come up with new, innovative, and radical firefighting techniques and systems.

“We need to integrate them quickly,” Stalnacker said. “There should be an urgency about this work.”

In the second category, autonomous detection and response to wildfires, competitors are to use technology like drones to detect and suppress fires quickly and aggressively.

“You have to find a fire, get to a fire, suppress it in 10 minutes over a 1,000-square-kilometer area, which is about the size of San Antonio, Texas,” Santy said. “This could be drones, it could be ground sensors, it could be high altitude platforms/cameras.”

Justin Whitesell, a judge in the XPRIZE Wildfire competition and the emergency services director for the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, told Denver7 Tuesday, “It would definitely help us do our job a little better."

Whitesell was on the ground for 112 days fighting the Cameron Peak Fire in northern Colorado in 2020.

“It’s super exciting to see the technology and the capabilities that are potentially out there,” Whitesell said.

Peter Houlihan, the executive vice president of biodiversity and conservation for XPRIZE, said that often, firefighters are "responding after the fact."

“And – if we can get ahead of that – we can ultimately help save lives,” he said.

Houlihan added the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, a grassland fire and the Maui, Hawaii fire, a lowland fire, punctuate the new and complicated threat of fires around the world.

“We have fires in the middle of the Amazon, to the Arctic, to the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” said Houlihan.

Experts said Maui was particularly eye-opening.

“It’s exactly why we need to innovate solutions,” Houlihan said. “Because that was the perfect storm of all sorts of challenges at the same time.”

Whitesell agreed.

“After the Marshall Fire and some others in Texas and even in Hawaii, realizing that the grasslands and the lowlands are just as susceptible (to wildfires),” was eye-opening, Whitesell said.

The $11 million, 4-year competition is offered in partnership with co-title sponsors Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Pacific Gas & Electric in addition to other sponsors, as well.

“We don’t run competitions just for the sake of competition,” Houlihan said. “We run it because we need meaningful solutions in the world now.”

Stalnacker, the retired fire management officer for Boulder County, said it's a great opportunity for science to help solve a huge problem.

“We offer these innovators, these garage mechanics, these technologists a chance to take this crazy idea and actually apply it with science and the firefighter,” Stalnacker said.

But Houlihan said, it's all worth it if the challenge brings something positive.

“The real beginning of the challenge and the exciting part is when we have those solutions, and we can scale them and implement them around the world,” Houlihan said. “We try to draw that box and then say, what can you do outside of it? The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” 

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