West Lake Hills looks at fire prevention

FireWatch America uses cameras to detect smoke from fires up to 6 miles away

The Steiner Ranch wildfire is still fresh in the minds of Lake Travis and Westlake residents, and West Lake Hills City Council is looking across the Atlantic Ocean for a way to prevent future fires.

West Lake Hills Mayor Dave Claunch and City Council have been in discussion with Germany-based company FireWatch in order to add another degree of fire protection to the Westlake area.

"Assuming that the system does what they say it will do, there is a good chance the city will invest," Claunch said.

The council spoke with people who use the system regularly in Vandenberg, Germany, to gauge their perception of how the system works on a day-to-day basis and came away feeling that most of their questions were answered, Claunch said.

The council set aside $200,000 in its budget to go toward the purchase of the system, regardless of the City of Austin and Travis County's involvement.

About the system

Originally developed by the German Aerospace Center to follow the tail of comets and asteroids, Ekkhart Keurt, an aerospace employee, took the idea and applied it to forest fires.

"[Keurt] would go out to the forests in Germany on the weekends to try to tweak the system to detect smoke from fires," said Alfred Stanley, the Texas representative for FireWatch America.

The system, which was developed for the German government, can distinguish a cloud of dust from a cloud of smoke because of the moisture content, Stanley said.

"It can tell whether it's a small fire or just someone kicking up some dirt driving down the road," Stanley said.

The system, which spent five years in development and has been in use in nearly a dozen countries for more than a decade, uses both an on-sight computer and transmitted data to a control center. The two-step process has cut down on forest fires in Germany by nearly 90 percent, Stanley said.

"The remarkable thing is that there has not been a decrease in ignitions, so they aren't having less fires; they are just catching it before it can do any damage," Stanley said.

The camera for the detection unit completes a 360-degree rotation every eight to 12 minutes while taking pictures, analyzing the images and transmitting the images to a central, secondary location for analysis. If a possible fire is detected, the system automatically alerts fire authorities, and fires are digitally stored for future reference.

"Each of our cameras has two sensors—a near infrared and visible light sensor—which are very sensitive," Stanley said.

Benefits

FireWatch can detect plumes of smoke as small as 30 feet by 30 feet from nearly 6 1/2 miles away and can pinpoint a fire's location, Stanley said.

"Currently when people call in to report a fire, they generally can't tell you where it is at," Stanley said. "They might be able to tell you where they are at, but with FireWatch, it can give you a very precise location."

Stanley said that being able to quickly locate a fire could save a lot of homes and potentially lives in the Travis County area with the amount of homes near wooded areas.

"The Texas Forest Service has been very encouraging about [the use of FireWatch]," Stanley said. "There are a lot of residential areas that back up onto greenbelts and nature preserves. That provides a large threat of fire. It's a potential problem."

The Steiner Ranch fire from 2011 didn't start in Steiner Ranch, Stanley said. It actually started across RR 620 and jumped the road. Had one of the FireWatch systems been in place, there was a chance that the large fire could have been caught early, saving a number of homes, he said.

"Every large fire starts small," Stanley said. "[The FireWatch system] can spot small fires very quickly. Ideally you want to prevent fires, but if you can't prevent them, then you want to stop them small."

System expenses

The proposal Stanley gave to the City Council would cost the city roughly $185,000, but negotiations continue between the Stanley and the city.

"We have a limited budget," Claunch said. "We have to discuss whether we want to buy the camera system and do another brush pickup, or do we do one or the other? Personally, I think the camera is a better investment."

In the city's 2013 fiscal year budget money was set aside for both brush pickup and for the FireWatch system, but final dollar amounts on each have not been set.

"I think it is a great system and absolutely something we need to have," West Lake Hills Councilman David Moore said. "I just don't think we need to pull any money out of fire safety to get it."

Both West Lake Hills and FireWatch have reached out to the City of Austin and Travis County about a joint purchase of the system, which could limit costs as well as increase coverage area, Stanley said.

"We are still working with the City of Austin," Stanley said. "The more sensors we get out in Travis County the better because it allows us to use triangulation. That makes the system even more accurate."

West Lake Hills has also contacted its neighboring areas but will likely purchase the system even if the other government entities are not involved, Claunch said.

Along with expenses, the system could potentially earn money for the city by helping to enforce burn bans.

"The city might see a bump in revenue from catching people not following burn bans," Stanley said.

Although neither the city nor county has not entered into any formal agreement with FireWatch, Claunch said he believes they will invest in the system in one form or another in the near future.

"We would like to have a system online as soon as possible," Claunch said.



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