Fires: Millions of California homes are vulnerable; tech entrepreneur says he can cut your risk

California’s wildfire trends are alarming.

Eight of the 10 largest fires in the state’s recorded history have occurred since 2017. Tens of thousands of homes burned in Paradise, Santa Rosa, Boulder Creek and other areas in recent years. Whole communities around South Lake Tahoe were evacuated this summer due to wildfire.

Experts say California’s drought, the warming climate, and a failure to properly thin brush and dead trees that have built up after 100 years of fire suppression are all to blame. Meanwhile, more people are moving into fire-prone areas, known as the “wildland urban interface.”

The growing danger is leading entrepreneurs to look for solutions. Among them is Jahan Khanna, a co-founder of the ride-sharing company Sidecar, which was sold to General Motors in 2016, and who later worked as an executive at Uber. Khanna is CEO of a new company called Firemaps, based in San Francisco.

The company uses drones and satellite imagery to create 3D maps of homes and businesses for free. Then it draws up plans to reduce fire risk, and lines up contractors who bid on the work to do everything from thinning trees to installing fire-resistant roofs and sprinkler systems. It makes money by charging the contractors a fee.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

Q: Many people think wildfires are mostly a threat to rural areas like the Sierra Nevada. What kind of threat is there to homes in the Bay Area?

A: Based on ratings by national insurance carriers and fire departments, there are 4.5 million homes on the West Coast that today are at high, or extreme risk of burning. While those aren’t places like urban San Francisco, there are high-risk areas in places like suburbs of Palo Alto or Napa. I have friends in Napa who live in non-rural areas who have lost their properties. Santa Cruz is another one. Marin County has a lot of high-risk areas. So while the view from someone living in a city may be that this is a rural problem, it’s a problem of the wildland urban interface, which affects millions of homeowners.

Q: Why did you start Firemaps? What’s the need?

A: If you live here, you can feel that this problem is getting worse. It’s inescapable. It isn’t going to magically go away. We need to do something to make it better.

When we talked to firefighters and people at places like the California Office of Emergency Services, they all said that in order to do anything about this, the amount of physical work we have to do is enormous. We’re not constrained by understanding what needs to be done. We’re constrained by carrying out the work.

Q: What are the two or three most effective things people can do to their homes to reduce the risk of wildfire?

A:  The most important thing is establish what’s called a non-combustible zone around your property and swap out vents and gutters for non-combustible, ember-resistant gutters and vents. It’s also most efficient for dollars spent.

Once you’ve done those things, you want to start working on the larger projects — establishing a well-limbed and cleared 5-to-30 foot zone, making sure your deck is coated with intumescent (fire-resistant) paint or is non-combustible. Making sure your roof is in good condition. And then finally, make sure there is a 100-foot radius (of thinned vegetation around your home). We have customers doing more exotic things, like putting sprinkler systems on the roof. But that’s kind of extra credit at some level.

Q: What you seem to be saying is that you don’t need a fortress. You just don’t want embers landing on your property and starting something.

A: The most important thing to do is make sure that as firefighters are defending these areas from massive fires, communities are defending themselves from these flying embers. It really does make a difference. Homes that have this work done are 2 to 3 times more likely to survive compared to neighbors’s homes that haven’t done it.

Q: Let’s talk about the company. How does it work?

It’s pretty easy. You go to our website at You put in your address. You answer a bunch of questions about your property, work you have done in the past. At that point we give you an analysis that uses predictive models about moisture levels, wind levels, this kind of stuff, as to what kind of risk your property is at generally. From there you schedule one of our drone operators to come map the property.

Q: Then what?

A: The drone flies around your house. It takes 500 to 600 pictures of the property at all angles. We stitch together a 3D rendering of your property. It’s pretty cool technology. We’re able to get measurements of your gutters and vents to within 1 centimeter accuracy. From there we list out recommendations. And once we do that, there’s a marketplace of general contractors and tradespeople who are qualified to do this who have already pre-bid these treatments. So you just pick what you want to do, click it and someone will come and do it.

BERKELEY, CA – SEPT 10: Jahan Khanna, left, and his brother Sharuk Khanna, cofounders of Firemaps, sit in front of a house where they launched a drone to survey a Berkeley Hills home in Berkeley, Calif., on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. Khanna’s company uses satellite imaging and drones to analyze and reduce the fire risk of people’s homes. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)

Q: How much does it cost?

A: It really depends on the property and what you want to do. If you want to create defensible space and an ember-free zone and replace your vents, it can be a $3,000 to $5,000 situation. But the more land work you want to do, the more tree work you’re getting done, the more exotic you want to do, the prices can go up from there.

Q: Some folks are going to say ‘can’t you just do this on your own?’

A: It’s not rocket science. It’s just a huge amount of work. And a huge number of people need to get this work done quickly. When you do this it doesn’t just make your property safer. It makes your community safer. It’s not dissimilar from getting vaccinated. It makes you safer and it stops fire from spreading through the community.

Q: What impact does doing this kind of work to reduce fire risk have on whether someone’s insurance policies are renewed?

A: That’s an open question. But it seems increasingly important. For example, State Farm is one of the largest insurers in California. They have said they are not going to renew people if they don’t get this type of work done in very high risk areas. CSAA has filed a similar brief through the state Department of Insurance.

Q: Some people have said that the solution is to not allow homes to be built in the most high-risk fire areas. What’s your view?

A: I think that’s part of the solution. But it’s a much deeper problem. You get into the question of why are those homes getting built? Because real estate prices are skyrocketing everywhere else. What do you do about that? I do think there is overactive building in a lot of the wildland urban interface. Regardless, there are millions of homes that are at risk now. You can’t get away from the fact that a huge amount of this work needs to get done no matter what happens.

________________________________________________________________Jahan Khanna

Age: 34

Position: CEO Firemaps

Residence: San Francisco

Education: B.S. in computer science engineering, University of Michigan, 2009; left master’s program to start his first company

_________________________________________________________________Five facts about Jahan Khanna

  • He plays acoustic and electric guitar. Loves Jimi Hendrix.
  • He hikes regularly around the Bay Area with his girlfriend, particularly at Mount Tamalpais.
  • He enjoys playing soccer and tennis.
  • In college, he co-founded Shepherd, a company that created smartphone apps so students — often waiting in cold weather outside — could see how far away buses were.
  • His latest company, Firemaps, has raised $5.5 million in seed money from Andreessen Horowitz and other investors.
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