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Restoring wildfire resilience in our forests with Kodama Systems

June 28, 2024

Kodama Systems’ James Sedlak explores the importance of technology in forest management and its impact on wildfire risk reduction

Kodama Systems (Kodama), an early-stage start-up based in Sonora, CA, is pioneering technology used in forest management operations that improve forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

Through innovative solutions like site connectivity, machine teleoperation, and waste biomass utilization, Kodama is addressing key challenges in the industry and working to help forest landowners meet their management objectives.

Before joining Kodama as one of the company’s early team members, James Sedlak, worked on a hotshot crew for the US Forest Service, a highly skilled group of wildland firefighters trained to perform various fire suppression duties on wildfires.

After a few seasons fighting fires, he met Kodama’s co-founder and CEO, Merritt Jenkins, in the autumn of 2022.

After being intrigued by the idea of using technology to mitigate the destructive wildfires he saw on the front lines, James joined Kodama and now holds a hybrid role across Operations and Communications at the company, supporting the field team and sources forest restoration projects while also managing the company’s communication efforts.

In this interview, James delves into Kodama’s strategies and technologies in forest management and wildfire risk reduction.

Why does Kodama focus on forest health and wildfire risk reduction?

The Kodama team is passionate about making a positive impact on our planet.

The founders have deep expertise building solutions in complex environments, so after some of the most destructive fires in California history, they turned their attention to building solutions to tackle our wildfire crisis.

While there is a myriad of exciting technology in wildfire detection and suppression, our team is focused on mitigation because it hasn’t seen as much innovation at the scale we need.

And a big part of wildfire mitigation starts with stewarding healthier, resilient forests.

How do Kodama’s technologies improve forest resilience?

Many forests in the Western U.S.

today are unhealthy because they are overstocked with vegetation and experience greater resource competition among trees.

The scientific community and forestry professionals are calling for active forest management to fix this issue, starting with a common practice called forest-thinning.

Forest-thinning removes vulnerable, overstocked trees so we can preserve healthier, mature trees spaced out with other native tree groupings.

This treatment, also called restoration or ecological thinning, is done to promote overall forest ecosystem health and increase the chances forests can survive disturbances like disease, insect infestation, drought, and wildfire.

To be effective at scale, forest-thinning is conducted with experienced operators running large machines that can cover multiple acres a day.

However, this industry faces some key challenges: a decline in workforce availability and operational inefficiencies due to a lack cell service in remote areas.

Kodama is addressing these challenges by applying site connectivity and teleoperation solutions to these mechanical thinning operations.

Together, these innovations enhance the efficiency and productivity of thinning treatments that, again, increases forest health.

How does Kodama’s technology work to prevent catastrophic wildfires?

Similar to forest health impacts, Kodama’s technology is improving the same thinning operations that also provide critical wildfire mitigation benefits.

Overstocked, at-risk forests have vast amounts hazardous fuel loading, vegetation that is likely to burn during wildfires, especially when dried by our warming climate.

Forest-thinning removes hazardous fuels and similar dense groupings of trees.

This increases the likelihood that any future wildfire will burn at low intensities, along the forest floor.

This type of fire is more manageable for emergency services and land stewards.

Kodama is also utilizing waste biomass (unmerchantable material like small-diameter logs, branches, and needles) from thinning operations that would otherwise be piled and burned on project sites.

By removing this material for carbon storage rather than pile-burning, we are removing excess material prone to burn during fires and preventing additional carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

How are site connectivity and teleoperation utilised in your forest management efforts?

The mechanical thinning workforce alone cannot meet the growing labour demands of state and federal forest restoration goals.

The work is also hazardous and tough on the body.

Site connectivity and teleoperation are improving the safety and productivity of forest management efforts.

High speed internet in remote project areas enables streamlined communication with emergency services and coordination on critical project logistics like requesting additional truck drivers or ordering parts when machines break down.

Site connectivity can also transmit real-time project geospatial data offsite.

Our teleoperation platform allows operators to control machines from a safer environment with the option of using autonomous capabilities to perform basic, tedious tasks.

This system extends project shifts, eliminates long commutes into the woods, frees up operators to focus on other complex assignments, and enables a new generation of operators who can run machines from anywhere.

What does success look like for Kodama Systems in the context of wildfire risk mitigation and forest management?

Success looks like less catastrophic wildfire and improved forest health across our technological footprint.

We are excited to see how many additional acres per year thinning crews can treat with our technology, which ultimately translates to state and federal agencies achieving their forest health and wildfire mitigation goals faster.

What are Kodama’s next steps for advancing technology or expanding efforts to enhance forest resilience?

Kodama is evaluating different possibilities for innovation on our teleoperation system.

We are looking to expand the control platform to other machines that perform lower complexity tasks on project sites.

We are exploring applications where operators can control machines on steep, hazardous terrain without being in the cab.

And we’re making software modifications that will improve the remote operator experience.

How will technology advancements shape the future of forest management and wildfire prevention globally?

Advancements in technology are improving solutions on all sides of the wildfire crisis.

Predictive fire behaviour modelling will become more accurate. Forest health monitoring will get more efficient. Wildfire detection and response times will get faster. Robotics and drones that assist human operators will become more reliable.

Collaboration platforms and information-sharing technologies will facilitate greater stakeholder coordination.

I’m optimistic all of this will deliver healthier forests and safer communities for the future.

This article was originally published in the June 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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