Man, that is just really sad.
Some how I’m not surprised to hear this. I always thought something seemed fishy with how suddenly he left firewhat then their rapid closure.
Just sucks cause the original hotlist was an awesome site to go to. I’m glad we have this one now though. But what a waste of time and effort just to have to rebuild it.
A lot of effort, time, and even experience was lost when they killed the old site. Sam got greedy and hurt a lot of people by not paying them and other things. We have this site now and it will continue to get better because we have good people on here running it.
Really shocked to hear this news. I been retired 9 years now but still keep abreast of the goings on with Cal Fire. Glad to see the Crew bumps and the fuels reduction program getting a boost again. the S70i’s will be a whole big learning curve for Helitack so have patients with the guys on Ferrying folks around on fires this year. 903 is the only one I’ve seen so far. You guys stay Safe this summer.
I was a seasonal with Sam back in the day with CDF. He was golden. I really hope it isn’t the truth but it’s hard to not believe it
There was the memorial site as well on wlf.com that a lot of work went into. I haven’t been able to find that.
Memorial site is http://wlfalwaysremember.org/, its still online and run by one of the original WLF founders.
Oh. That great. Thanks.
Yup he was an explorer advisor too at CZU/17. Same guy. Sad but looks like he did it the wrong way. I think he had a partner as well.
Sam was a ff at the same station when I was there. Sharp guy and pretty smart. Surprised he resigned after reaching a captain rank.
I talked with a few people who had his company’s stuff at an incident base camp and they liked his operation.
I too used to frequent the old site WLF.com and read some neat stuff but lost interest when the format and company changed.
Thanks to those who stepped up and created this. I just really hope that the bashing of agencies don’t start. We ALL know good hard working people from different agencies who just do their jobs.
Stay safe everybody.
This is Sam, the person discussed above. Unfortunately, the news and the life on the ground are two different stories. I don’t know if anyone will read this, and I am not here to try to clear my name. But I do want folks to know, “What happened to FireWhat!”
This will be a pretty forthcoming and open post about me, my life, my decisions, and the circumstances of why I stepped down. FireWhat had a lot going on. We were growing in ways that a firefighter with no formal business education was not capable of keeping up with.
For the last 6 Months of my time at FireWhat, I was working with Attorneies to make sure our contract with Boeing was a very solid and protected. We had an event happen early on with a large search engine company that took advantage of our resources. In 2017, we had fallen into the graces of doing good work on fires around GIS, and had partnered with a few very beneficial partners to help us with our next giant venture. That was to be partners with Boeing to bring Commerical UAV’s to wildfires.
That project consumed all of my time for about a year. With that project, we were doing everything we could to keep the community informed and continue to advance tools for the industry. On a personal side, there was no upside for me, except being able to know that my friends who were out on the line might have better intelligence, and their families back at home might feel better knowing what is going on on the fire. In 2014 we developed the Rapid Damage Assessment tools used by CalFire today. In 2015, we created real-time tracking tech using the Garmin InReach Devices. In 2016, we caught the attention of Boeing and began developing the process to capture imagery in near real-time from a UAV and deliver it down to the ground. In 2017, that contract was all coming together.
With every large project, it takes a ton of capital. And I spent most nights working on raising funds from Silicon Valley Tech companies. When you are in the startup world and raising funds, there is an old saying, “There is good money, and there is bad money!” In May of 2017, we brought on an investor that I was not excited about. That investor lived and breathed the “Bad Money” posture. Although he came at a time we need bridge funding, he and I never saw eye to eye. He wanted a fast turn to make money off what we were doing. At the time we brought him on, I was one of 5 board members. I had one vote to the other 4. I voted not to work with him, but was somewhat forced by the others to vote to work with him. Long story short on that, he is the ultimate reason I stepped down. It had nothing to do with grants, fraud, stealing, embezzlement, or the like.
I stepped down at a time that I was barely surviving as a person. I had health issues I wasn’t taking care of. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating. I was burning the candle at all ends. Nothing said in this post is to make anyone feel bad for me. It’s just the reality of where I was at that time in life.
At that time, I had not come out as a Gay Male. Yes, I am gay. Condone me in the Fire Community. It’s fine. But, that giant skeleton in the closet was eating at me. Never in my 15 years at CalFire did anyone know except a few very close friends that I shared this point about my life. I also was dealing with Major Clinical Depression, Severe Asthma, and PTSD.
When we bought WLF.com, one of my first few months of ownership, I was sitting in my chair at home catching a break one June evening. And I got a call, “Sam we found 18 shelters, 2 are missing. Can you please do your best to help hold back any media on the website!” That was from the AZ Safety Officer who had been assigned to Granite Mountain’s shelter deployment. That was within the first few minutes after the deployment. That singular event pushed me harder than ever to make sure we created tech and info that might see that event never happen again.
I worked as a firefighter for 15 years professionally, 16 years as a volunteer, and 11 years as a Ski Patrol. I spent 75% of my professional fire career on a structure engine for CalFire, and longed to be riding out on the Type 3. Every summer I spent on the fire line though. In those years, I saw a number of things that everyone on this site has seen. One station I worked at specifically, we saw too many fatalities, suicides, and years of memories I will never forget.
A major driving force for me was to create resources for fire and emergency responders. At the time that I left, no, I was not the CEO. I wasn’t the CEO for about a month at that point. I left while on a Hurricane in Texas with a small team of ours and the Boeing UAV team. At the same time, our core team was on the Eagle Creek Fire. We launched the first commercialized use of a UAS on a wildfire, under contract of the Government.
The Hurricane was in the limelight. But we had B Team Equipment, and we did not have our core team. Our tech at that point had not really been tested. But there we were out of necessity, live in Hood River, and on Hurricane Harvey. Both events had all eyes on us. But we only had enough to support one. I was not the CEO at that point, and I was no longer in control of the company. The new CEO did the best he could to support the two major events, but the Board (Which I was no longer part of) were not willing to further support the two events and focused all attention on the Hood River event. Looking back, that was the right choice. Again, we hadn’t tested or built out a deployment system. And the main systems were all back on the west coast. At the time that Boeing asked us to go to the Hurricane, it was the right decision, had we had a duplicate set of resources. But we didn’t and that main resource on the Eagle Creek fire was a culmination of 7 years of advances and key relationships with major tech partners. We didn’t have that same duplicate resource. But we needed it in Texas. The board couldn’t support funding a rapid build of a duplicate resource. I know now that I should have just kept my cool and not lost it like I did.
When folks have said, he left with a ton of money and didn’t pay anyone. Unfortunately, that is not true either. I left with all of my life savings, retirement, and blood sweat, and tears were gone. When the board decided to close the company, here are words verbatim from one of the Board Members a few days before he fired everyone:
“Sam, what happened to FireWhat? Actually I know, the founders were no longer there, and the vision was gone. We could do it all again!”
I immediately said to him, I can’t do that all over. That took 7 years and every bit of energy I had. Little did I know, a few days later, that investor would drive with his crew to our offices unannounced, fire the entire team, take all of our furniture, and all of the work we had busted our asses for over a period of 7 years.
I haven’t spoke about this to anyone really but my family and friends. Not because I am ashamed or embarrassed. But because I know I let down an entire industry. Before I had a chance to speak, the world was caving in and I went to work trying to save the assets of those of us who weren’t millionaire investors. I helped the founders and our families stop the sale of the assets. With no money, we were only able to hold the sale of the assets off as long as the gracious pro bono attorney would give his time. I don’t know if they sold the equipment, or took it for their own use. I was far from part of the decision tree at that point. The shady investor did things that you watch in movies.
That shady operation put almost all of the companies assets in his pocket. The team had worked extremely hard in the 2017 season, and all of the fire response contract funds were rolling in. But, that investor was a Cayman Island business banker. He is the type of investor that you fear as a startup founder. The first time we met, he suggested if he invested, he would need to change the companies name. I walked out of that meeting and said I guess we won’t be working together.
5 months later, the Boeing Contract was a real thing. To develop that tech we needed funding knowing we had major development we needed to do and we knew we couldn’t, not engage in delivering real-time imagery to the firefighters on the ground. For all involved, the decisions made at the end were not out of mal intent, but out of creating something the world hadn’t seen yet, with a shoestring budget.
When it comes to the articles posted to the world, yes, I plead guilty to the charges. Yes, we billed for work, that hadn’t been done. Not because I was leading a scheme, or that I was intending to use the money for other things. We billed that way because that was what was agreed upon. What wasn’t agreed upon was the company closing and disappearing.
The mistake on my end was not knowing business well enough, billing in advance, and with zero knowledge that the company would not exist and work wouldn’t get delivered, bills wouldn’t get paid. And that was the crime. We billed for work that didn’t get done. Had I stuck it out, likely, none of the events would have happened. But, they did, and for that, I did what I felt was right and admit my fault. The mistake I made was a scheme to defraud anyone. It was made in growing to quick for the funds available and not putting enough focus into how and where funds were being spent. That is 100% my fault. No one on the team bares that fault, because it was under my lack of direction and the company had grown far beyond my ability and skill set. There was not a single meeting to plan a “scheme” as was reported. There was a dedicated team who did the best they could and there weren’t enough of us for the amount of work we had subscribed to.
I could not, nor could any of us had foreseen that happening. We had built a strong company, but like any startup, you bootstrap your operation for years. You barely get by. You do it because you are passionate about the cause. For the first 5 years of the company, I was working as a Fire Captain and using my salary at work to pay the salaries and for the operations of those building tools for you all. I stepped away from CalFire to help the team build the best tools, maps, and resources we could for the community.
In looking back, one of the biggest issues in the company was that I lived in a fear of failure. I feared that if I went to see a therapist, I would be weak. I was raised in the fire service that we didn’t talk about incidents. We didn’t talk about our mental health. We sucked it up, and we just kept that bottle in the closet to never expose what we had seen or had to do. I feared if I came out, all the work we had done for our WLF community, our Local Communities in Bend and Dunsmuir, would all lose its support because a Gay guy was running WLF. I feared that if I told my team who I was, they wouldn’t support me.
In saying that, to me, I was being selfish. Because I was so concerned about what others would say and do, that I forgot, the greater good wouldn’t care. Some may have thrown stones, but in reality, most wouldn’t have cared, and just wanted to make sure wildfire info kept coming.
Believe me, it would have been so much easier to just walk off a cliff and never live another day on this planet for all the fallout that has occurred. I am bummed with everything that happened, because I let down an entire community many times over. I let down my friends, my family, and those who supported me. If I would have just taken those breaks that others asked me to. If I would have ever taken the help when it was extended to me. And if I would have ever just stepped back and slowed down, non of what has happened would have happened.
But it did. And there’s no taking back what happened. There is only learning from your past and working to not let your past determine your future. For me, I have a permanent mark on me. I can either choose to just bury my head and hope someone gives me pitty, or I can get up and keep trying to do right. I will always choose the latter.
As far as where I am today in life. I am still dealing with the court case. And I am working to do what I can to make sure things are made right. Many probably think, because stories that were published, that I just ran away with a ton of money. I didn’t. I live in a 700 square foot house I bought 17 years ago as an Engineer. I drive the car I had when I left CalFire. I ended up with a ton debt. And a few investors ended up with a ton of money. I invested all I had into seeing this community be safe.
There will be some who will blow off the above and throw stones. And that is ok. I deserve it. I just ask that you understand a bit more of “What happened to FireWhat”. There is a lot more to the story than what the articles depict. The rest of the story is about a team, a very dedicated team, who was busting their asses every day for this community. None of the employees or myself benefited at all from the closure of the company.
So, there it is. I am sorry to each and every one of you for letting you down.
I hope you all stay safe. I appreciate those who have stood up for me. And I appreciate those who supported this community from the beginning.
Hey Sam. This is David Knowles, we worked together in your brief stint at PG&E. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for all the stress you were under physically and mentally and I hope you can take care of yourself better in the future. I’m sorry you got mixed up with a shady investor, but I’m glad you told your side of the story.
I’m sure going forward with the debt and federal charges and permanent mark on you will be challenging, but I believe in second chances and hope you can find yours quickly and live a freer and healthier life. Feel free to find me on LinkedIn if I can ever be of help. And, even if no one else accepts this apology, at least I do. Be well.