Local surfer creates environmentally friendly fire extinguisher startup
Jeff Denholm never stops moving. Originally from the coast of Southern Maine, the Capitola-based professional surfer is like the human equivalent of a perpetual motion machine. From his time in the Marines to professional surfing to his environmental endeavors with his new company Atira Systems, Denholm makes things happen.
And he does it all with one arm.
A former Merchant Marine and commercial diver, Denholm worked in Alaskan fisheries during the mid-’90s as a deck hand. During his time there, he was sucked into a drive shaft, losing his right arm in the process.
“It hurt pretty bad,” Denholm deadpans, idly sipping his iced coffee. His prosthetic arm, a gleaming synthetic construct, is efficient looking, but he uses his left hand to hold his glass.
Today, Denholm is a fixture of the greater Santa Cruz area, having moved on from the world of fishing and diving. As a surfing ambassador for Patagonia, the popular outdoor clothing and gear distributor, Denholm moved to Capitola from Maui, Hawaii for one of the big reasons that many surfers find themselves in the area: “I really wanted to surf Mavericks,” Denholm says, his eyes glinting.
The Half Moon Bay surf spot is famous—perhaps infamous—for its hazardous conditions that act as an irresistible lure for wave junkies. But Denholm isn’t overconfident.
“I surf with a lot of temperance and deference obviously—I mean, I’m an older guy with one arm—but [Mavericks] was the lure here,” says Denholm, who, at 44, is probably in better shape than most in their twenties.
“Temperance and deference” may mean something else for Denholm. In July 2011, Denholm competed in a 32-mile paddleboard race in Hawaii that stretched from Molokai to Oahu. Paddleboarding, a sport that involves surfboards and a lot of upper body strength, doesn’t allow for the use of one’s feet. But Denholm finished the race in under seven hours anyway—an impressive feat even for someone with full use of both arms.
Though still an accomplished surfer, Denholm has now turned his considerable energies toward an environmentalist end. His current project? Environmentally sustainable and non-toxic fire retardant for use by the U.S. Forest Service in fighting perennial California wildfires.
“Beyond Patagonia, I was an entrepreneur at heart,” Denholm says. “I didn’t want to go back into diving and fishing, because I didn’t want to travel too much anymore.”
Denholm started small. He took advantage of the discounts and amenities available to him as a disabled veteran, and became a licensed firefighting equipment vendor.
“I purchased a 2,000-gallon water tender that I would lease to the state whenever there were big fire campaigns, like back in 2008,” Denholm says. “The whole state was burning, and whenever they ran out of equipment, they leased it from people like me.”
From there, Denholm made an effort to educate himself on the ins and outs of the industrial firefighting business. What he found profoundly bothered him.
“I started doing my homework, keeping up on blogs, researching, trying to build my status as a vendor with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and I discovered that there was a huge environmental issue with the chemicals they were using to fight fires,” he explains. “They are extremely harmful.”
Though standard fire-fighting materials used by domestic departments are largely inert and nontoxic, Denholm partially bases his conclusions on a series of lawsuits filed by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) against the USFS.
In 2005, the FSEEE won a federal ruling that required the USFS to review its aerial fire retardants for environmental safety in light of studies conducted by entities like the U.S. Geological Survey that showed certain aerial fire retardants to have toxic effects on ecosystems when used in large quantities. Large quantities and aerial fire retardants like Phos-Chek (the orange-red spray that firefighting planes and helicopters drop on large wildfires) often go hand in hand, which explains Denholm’s concern.
“The bottom line is that in a bad fire year, they drop over 30 million gallons of that stuff on forests,” says Denholm. “Those stats are alarming to me.”
In addition to taking advantage of his disabled veteran benefits, Denholm used the connections available to him as a professional surfer for Patagonia.
“I’m connected to some powerful environmental luminaries through Patagonia,” he says. “They really adopted some unique environmental practices in their manufacturing, so having an affiliation with them gives me an immense amount of access to environmentalists.” Denholm approached Rick Ridgeway, “a luminary in the climbing world” and vice president of environmental affairs at Patagonia. “I said, ‘I want to start a business and create a nontoxic alternative [for fighting fires]. I want to leverage our political clout, take down the bad guys, and put our stuff in,’” Denholm recalls saying.
With an advisory lineup that includes Nell Newman of Newman’s Own Organics, in addition to Ridgeway himself (one of the first Americans to climb the second highest mountain on earth, K2), Denholm has a strong team behind him and his company, Atira Systems.
“I have a passion for Native American history,” Denholm says. “Atira is the Pawnee goddess protector of the earth. That really resonated with me. We’ve got a product. We’re patenting it. It’s more effective than the status quo. It’s 100 percent biodegradable. And it’s affordable.”
Despite being one of the first entrepreneurs to attempt such a project, Denholm is well aware of the stumbling blocks that have prevented others from fulfilling similar goals.
“Affordability is a huge thing that has been a barrier,” Denholm says. “People have been trying to do this, but they couldn’t hit the mark with cost and functionality. Ours is price competitive, and it will obviously become more affordable the more we make.”
The fire retardant itself is nearly done, says Denholm, but his company is still in the process of getting certified with the USFS, which takes a year; he expects it to hit the market sometime this summer, just in time for the fire season.
“Our product can be classified as a fire gel; the suppression that the water has with our product impregnated in it is like a hundred times what it has normally, so we’re using 90 percent less water,” Denholm says. “The more water you use, the more runoff goes in the streams and soil. Water is a limited commodity and resource, especially in areas like California. Water rights are going to be one of the biggest issues in the next 50 years, so this is another ancillary benefit of our product.”
Denholm hopes that his product, though formulated for the USFS and their large-scale wildfire-fighting operations (which he claims are toxic), will be adopted by wider sectors of the population.
“It’s like selling an athletic shoe—if the pros are wearing it, the public will wear it,” Denholm says. “We’re looking international, but we’re starting here at home.”
And for good reason: Denholm figures that if any state should be on the cutting edge of firefighting technology, it should be the one that burns wildly almost every summer.
“California is the sharp end of the spear when it comes to firefighting technology,” Denholm says. “The firefighters here are the best in the world, and their technology is the most advanced. They're experts. The way they allocate and manage the system is incredible. Other states come here to learn how to fight fires.”
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