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The new business of wildfire preparedness could grow to be massive

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Preparing homes and neighborhoods for wildfires is becoming more urgent as wildfires race across new and wider swaths of the country, fueled in part by climate change humans have caused. That's an opportunity for a business that's only burgeoning now and could become a massive industry, as NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Three years ago, O.P. Almaraz stared at a menacing glow on the horizon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Now, this is called the Blue Ridge Fire.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Fire burning from the freeways here.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: Nearly 5,000 homes under mandatory evacuation.

SELYUKH: Almaraz, at home in California's San Bernardino County, packed up his family and dogs to evacuate.

O P ALMARAZ: The next morning, I woke up. The entire hotel lobby was jam-packed, chaos everywhere. I thought, holy smokes. Everyone is wondering if their house is going to make it. And there's so much uncertainty.

SELYUKH: And an opportunity. Almaraz had a company called Allied Restoration, crews that clean and renovate homes after a disaster. Now, his second company, Allied Disaster Defense, is all about preparing homes to face a wildfire, not just hoping and praying. He says this business in the past year grew almost 30%, and he doesn't have a ton of competitors.

ALMARAZ: Not many, not many at all. There aren't enough specialized technicians to do this type of work.

SELYUKH: The industry around wildfire mitigation and preparedness is still nascent, relatively small, barely regulated but growing fast.

SETH SCHALET: It's kind of a Wild West now of what's happening wildfire-wise.

SELYUKH: Seth Schalet runs the nonprofit Santa Clara County FireSafety (ph) Council. He says awareness of the threat is spreading. Extreme fires are burning where they didn't used to like Hawaii. Cities unfamiliar with smoke get shrouded in orange haze like New York City this summer.

SCHALET: Now everybody is concerned, and so there's a lot of folks jumping into the kind of home entrepreneurial market.

SELYUKH: Companies are pitching high-end air filters and sprinkler systems for those who can afford it. Architects and builders have begun to plan for wildfire risks. Venture capital has started to flow to wildfire-focused tech companies - for example, Dryad in Germany, which makes basically an outdoor smoke detector.

CARSTEN BRINKSCHULTE: This is about the size of a palm of the hand.

SELYUKH: CEO Carsten Brinkschulte holds up what looks like an oversized luggage tag. It's a solar-powered sensor that sits on a tree trunk and tries to smell a fire when it's very small.

BRINKSCHULTE: The biggest challenge for us was to distinguish the smell of a wildfire from that of a diesel truck driving by, for example.

SELYUKH: This takes artificial intelligence, which is starting to power a whole new subset of the industry. And for now, there's lots and lots of testing for the new tech and not much oversight. So technological leaps are one driver in the wildfire mitigation business. The other one hits closer to home.

ALMARAZ: Most people, they contact us because the insurance is going up.

SELYUKH: That's O.P. Almaraz again, the contractor in California, where home insurers are jacking up rates or leaving altogether. 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, vents that can stop embers from flying inside. Almaraz's crew offers to do it all or teach people to do it themselves.

APRIL SCHWARTZ: We almost can't keep up, but that's a good thing.

SELYUKH: Ex-firefighter April Schwartz now works for Almaraz. Today she's doing something beyond conventional home hardening - spraying fire retardant in a picturesque neighborhood northeast of Los Angeles. It's similar to what the firefighters might drop from the sky. The street is dotted with extremely flammable palm trees. It backs into a lush forest cascading off the San Gabriel Mountains, uncomfortably close to where a wildfire raged in 2020.

SCHWARTZ: So embers like to land in those little pockets. That's why we spray the base of the tree.

SELYUKH: Almaraz is now even training other contractors to do comprehensive wildfire home prep, eyeing a franchise to other Western states by next year. Wildfires as a threat are reaching new places, and as big business, only heating up. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

SUMMERS: NPR's Liz Baker contributed to this report. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.