Wildfires Inspired an Award-Winning Invention

Zoe Sherman

Story by Christina Tatu
Photo by Marco Calderon

Zoe Sherman ’25 is part of a student startup that designed and built an outdoor fire detection device.

An inconspicuous device no bigger than an iPhone could help reduce the risk from thousands of wildfires that ravage land across the United States every year. InfernoGuard was created by four students, including Lehigh student Zoe Sherman ’25, a computer science and business major.

Since its creation in 2016, InfernoGuard has won numerous awards, including the $100,000 Climate Change Grand Prize during the Arizona State University Innovation Open earlier this year. This past May, InfernoGuard won another $150,000 as the VentureCat 2022 Grand Prize Winner at Northwestern University.

Sherman and her classmates at Providence Day School‚ a private college preparatory school in Charlotte‚ N.C.‚ began working on InfernoGuard in 2016 when they were freshman in high school for eCYBERMISSION‚ a STEM competition requiring students to solve a community problem with an innovative solution.

At the time‚ the western region of North Carolina was getting charred by massive wildfires. Even though they lived three hours from the fires‚ the air quality in Charlotte was so bad they couldn’t go outside.

“Being stuck inside showed us how drastic the effects of wildfires could be‚” Sherman says. “We learned that many forest fires aren’t detected until they are out of control. We decided to create a fire detection device.”

Sherman and her former classmates recently re-ignited InfernoGuard after a short hiatus from the project after graduating high school. They were inspired to start it up again by the raging wildfires that engulfed Australia between 2019–2020.

From 2011 to 2020‚ there were an average of 62‚805 wildfires nationwide‚ with 7.5 million acres impacted annually‚ according to the National Interagency Coordination Center.

“The environmental aspect of our fire detection device is really important to us‚” Sherman says. “One of the goals in our mission statement is to protect land‚ people and their investments.”

Although other fire detection devices are available on the market‚ Sherman explains‚ the difference with InfernoGuard is that it’s mounted six feet above the ground‚ not higher like others‚ which means it can detect fires before they get larger and more destructive.

The InfernoGuard team recently created a new prototype of the device that will soon be ready for performance testing.

InfernoGuard uses a series of sensors to collect environmental data such as temperature‚ humidity‚ levels of smoke and types of gaseous and particulate matter. That information is sent to a database where it’s run through an algorithm‚ and if a fire is detected‚ an alert is sent to landowners and the local fire department‚ Sherman explained.

Sherman and her co-founders spent the previous summer testing the device in Yosemite National Park‚ which relies on watch towers and commercial planes to call in fires. This summer‚ Sherman spent time in Silicon Valley‚ participating in Draper University’s Hero Training Entrepreneurship Program.

The intensive five-week program helps participants develop startup skills to launch and sustain a successful venture‚ gain exposure to industry experts‚ and network with other entrepreneurs.

Sherman says she was the youngest person attending the program and was struggling with “imposter syndrome” until someone else attending the seminar reminded her not to let her age define her.