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Austin Fire Dept. to test fire alert camera system

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Technology used to scan the heavens may be used to search for wildfires in Austin. City officials have given the Austin Fire Department the green light to study the possibility of building a network of first defense cameras.

Flames cut across an east Travis County ridgeline Thursday afternoon. The fire took place at the Indian-grass wildlife sanctuary, near Decker Lake as part of a two-day prescribed burn to reduce the brush.

"And what we have now is a high volume of woody species which would d be a higher canopy fire so we are managing those," said Rene Barrera with the Austin Parks and Recreation Dept.

Forecasters are predicting a "below normal" fire risk in March for Central Texas and the Southeast. It's much different from what was issued before the 2011 wildfire outbreak. More than 6,000 acres in Texas were scorched and thousands of homes were destroyed. Prevention was the lesson learned. With that in mind - Austin Fire Department administrators briefed city council members about an alert system called Firewatch.

"What it does it has less false positives than would another system," said AFD Assistant Director Jim Linardos.

Developed in Germany 10 years ago, specialized cameras detect smoke, analyze it and can lead fire to the flames before they get out of control. The system runs on computer software originally created to study deep space comets.

"So we want to research it to determine if it is something from a staff perspective that we want to make a recommendation on whether we use this or not," said Deputy City Manager Michael McDonald.

Texas A&M is also testing Firewatch cameras in the Piney Woods and the research there may be incorporated into the review put together by AFD. With the fire season getting underway, city council members want a report back to them as soon as possible. A proposal, if one comes, may not be presented until late spring.

There is already one camera scanning the horizon in the Austin area. It's located on Mt Larson and was put up by the city of West Lake Hills.

The tower camera feeds images back to the police dispatch room. The system passed its first test in November, but Mayor Dave Claunch says some adjustments and tweaks are still being worked on.

"It's too soon to tell exactly how it works but in general we're very enthusiastic about the system, it's got tremendous potential," said Mayor Claunch.

The city paid $185,000 for the system. By December, if they are not satisfied, they can send it back for an 80% refund. While the West Lake Hills camera could become part of a larger network of cameras, building it may require a cost sharing partnership with surrounding commutes.

"There is a lot of interest, and I think that's well warranted this system if implemented correctly and monitored correctly could be a real strong tool in helping to detect a wildfire and contain it before it becomes too big to do so," said Claunch.

The key factors may simply come down to cost, performance and the damage that can be done.

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