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Why do houses burn but trees remain? Photos from California wildfires reveal lessons for B.C.

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The wildfire situation in California is now the deadliest in the state’s history, with at least 50 people killed, more than 100 missing or unaccounted for and the town of Paradise almost entirely destroyed.

But the footage coming out of affected communities tells an unexpected story, says a U.S. fire expert — one that could have lessons for wildfire prevention measures.

The town of Paradise, Calif. was almost entirely burned to the ground. (Matthew Henderson)

Jack Cohen, a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist, focuses his research on investigating how homes ignite during extreme wildfires and how fires move through communities. 

He says fireproofing individual homes may be the most critical part of preventing the spread of wildfires.

“Our perception is that this wall of fire comes through and destroys everything, and yet what I’m seeing is that there couldn’t have been a wall of fire,” Cohen told Stephen Quinn, the host of CBC’s The Early Edition.

“The thing that would have carried the wall of fire is still there: The trees are still there and the structures are destroyed.”

Two wooden statues stand in a burned out building in Paradise, Calif. (Matthew Henderson/CBC)

Instead of a wall of flames descending, burning embers blow downwind and ignite many spot fires over a wide area.

“That’s how the whole area can be burning at the same time,” Cohen explained.

That’s also why, from the photos coming out of the damaged communities, it looks almost as though there were hundreds of individual house fires rather than one fire sweeping through the entire town.

More proactive measures are needed to fireproof homes — but that doesn’t necessarily mean that trees need to be removed, says Jack Cohen. (Matthew Henderson)

Battling ignition

Removing clutter around homes that could become combustible is crucial, he said, and making sure there is nothing touching a structure that could ignite it. 

“We make sure that we have no debris on the structure. We make sure that nothing can burn … within the first metre to metre-and-a-half [of the house],” he said. 

All that’s left of a home in Paradise, Calif. after the Camp Fire devoured structures. (Matthew Henderson)

But that doesn’t necessarily mean cutting back all vegetation. 

As the photos show, large trees will still remain standing after a building burns down. 

“Don’t just look at destroyed structures,” Cohen said. “Look at the area around the destroyed structures and what you see is unconsumed vegetation.”

At least 44 people have died and more than 100 people remain missing or unaccounted for in California’s fires. (Matthew Henderson)

Instead, he suggested, keep a 30 metre buffer around buildings by clearing debris and surface fuels like old firewood, twigs and dried grasses. 

 “Ignition-resistant communities, that gives us an option for safety.”

With files from The Early Edition

The wildfire situation in California is being called the deadliest in the state’s history and lessons for British Columbia are emerging from the photos of the carnage. 7:50

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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