By John Ramos

CALISTOGA (KPIX) — People who live in areas prone to wildfire are coming to understand the importance of hardening their homes. Now, a startup company is using an eye in the sky to identify fire risk and make the task of creating a defensible space a lot easier.

The Tubbs Fire in 2017 changed Bill Dyer’s mind about living in a house in the middle of the woods.

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“We thought that was a cool thing,” he said. “But once you’ve been through these fires, looking out your window and seeing trees has a different impact.”

So Bill cleared a defensible space around his house in the forested hills near Calistoga. But when the Glass Fire burned right up to his driveway, he decided he needed professional help and turned to a new company called Firemaps. They use drones to create a 3-dimensional rendering of the property that shows, in minute detail, the conditions of the home and the surrounding tree canopies.

“And from that we’re able to create a prioritized list of treatments that would best help reduce their fire risk,” said Firemaps co-founder Sharuk Khanna.

Khanna says work is underway to trim Bill’s large oak trees, removing dead branches that can act as kindling. They also swapped out the eave vents for ones that seal up when subjected to high heat. Firemaps found one wall grate on the back side of the house with wide mesh screening that could allow burning embers directly into the crawlspace under the house.

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“It’s not in the field of view, not usually something you are aware of, as a homeowner,” said Khanna. “How many vents do I have, what kind of vents do I have, what kind of mesh is on them?”

The homeowner gets a detailed list of recommendations, including immediate fixes and those that can be phased in over several years. Scheduling contractors can be a difficult task, so Firemaps helps find companies to do the work, saving the homeowner time and the contractor money, by using the detailed 3-D rendering as a kind of virtual tour around the property.

“Which allows contractors to look at and bid on the project without having to show up onsite,” said Khanna.

Firemaps updates its renderings each time major work is done and they say that could be valuable proof for convincing insurance companies to continue coverage in high risk areas. But perhaps the best thing about Firemaps is its price: it’s FREE to homeowners. The cost is borne by the contractors for getting more work. Bill still has his own work to do, but as he looked out at the clean grove of oaks outside his door, he said he’s come to appreciate living in woods that are not quite so thick.

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“When I look out this direction, it’s more park-like,” he said. “It’s a managed forest and that’s what it needs to be.”