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City set to participate in early fire detection system

Thursday, May 1, 2014 by Mark Richardson

The severe drought gripping Central Texas brings a high degree of risk for wildfires, and that is a major concern for local fire officials, who do not want a repeat of the massive blazes that devastated areas like Bastrop and Spicewood in recent years.


The Austin City Council could take a major step today toward providing local firefighters with part of a high-tech system to help in the early detection of wildfires. Council members will consider purchasing the city’s share of a three-part detection system called FireWatch, which is designed to detect smoke in unpopulated areas so firefighters can find and control flames before they grow out of control.


The local FireWatch system would consist of three camera-like sensors tied in to a computer system. The sensors capture images in a 360-degree pattern, capturing some 80 images every six minutes and alert officials if they detect smoke. The local system would consist of three towers containing the German-made FireWatch sensors, one already in place on Mount Larson in West Lake Hills, another managed by the Austin Fire Department and a third by Travis County. The West Lake Hills sensor was the first installed in an urban area in the United States


Together, the three towers would work together to give local officials coverage of almost all of Travis County, according to Alfred Stanley, the president of FireWatch Texas.


“Texas has more homes at high risk of damage from wildfire than any other state,” Stanley said. “A recent study by CoreLogic showed that Texas has about 1.3 million homes at high or very high risk. And Travis County has a very large number of homes and businesses build in heavily wooded urban areas.”


The parent company, FireWatch America, has set up a national demonstration center at the Texas Forest Service headquarters in College Station, where it is monitoring more than 1,000 square miles of timberland in southeast Texas. FireWatch monitors are in use in nine countries around the world.


A Joint Wildfire Task Force made up of Austin and Travis County officials evaluated the system earlier this year and recommended that both governments invest in completing the system. The city’s Public Safety Commission also endorsed the project in early April.


The cost of Austin’s portion of the system is estimated at about $225,000 to obtain two of the monitors for its tower, plus between $116,000 and $232,000 a year for additional personnel to staff the system on high to extreme index fire danger days, according to a memo from Deputy City Manager Michael McDonald.


Once Austin buys into the system, Travis County is expected to follow suit and approve its part of the system in the next few weeks. No date has been set to have the system up and running.

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