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Space-Tech Cameras May Help Spot Wildfires

In the year since wildfires destroyed thousands of homes across Central Texas, officials have looked for ways to reduce the threat of fires. They've since found one, in technology developed not for fighting fires but for exploring outer space.

Cameras developed for analyzing comet tails might also serve as early wildfire detection.

Rebecca Bell-Meterau couldn’t wait to move into her new home in a green Austin suburb near the Hill Country. Trees, trails and natural beauty promised peace and relaxation. But then the Texas State Forest Service marked her neighborhood as a high-risk area for wildfires. Now, she says, the peace is gone.

“I was really shocked when I saw the map,” Bell-Meterau said. “You just see these weeds that have grown up really tall. And they haven’t even done any clearing or mowing to make sure they don’t have that dry underbrush. And they are almost chest-high and they are really dry, and you think they’d be perfect for catching on fire and spreading a fire.”

With winds blowing, a wildfire could reach Bell-Meterau’s home before anyone could spot it and call 911. That’s a reality shared by anyone who lives along Austin’s greenbelts.

So the city of Austin is considering high-resolution cameras from a company called Firewatch America that monitor high-risk areas for smoke and notify first responders of potential dangers.

“These sensors can distinguish between 16,000 levels of grey,” said Alfred Stanley of Firewatch America. “They are sensitive enough to distinguish whether there is water vapor in a cloud of particles. I don’t know a human being who can look from five miles away and can tell the difference between dust trailing down the back of a pickup truck or a blaze.”

The cameras were developed by the German space agency to study the chemical makeup of comet tails and dust storms on other planets. But they’ve been used in Australia, Mexico and Central Europe to fight fires.

“It’s been used heavily in Germany,” said Austin City Councilman Mike Martinez. “It’s reduced forest fires by 90 percent and gets us the most rapid response. And I just feel we have an opportunity here. The more eyes you have watching the community, the better.”

Martinez is one of the system’s supporters. He’s also a former firefighter and says early detection is key to controlling wildfires.

Firewatch America says the system will cost about $1.5 million, including cameras and a monitoring station to cover all of Travis County.

But some of Martinez’s old firefighting colleagues oppose that plan.

“We look at it against the backdrop of everything else we need to be doing to reducing risk,” said Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association.

He says that before the city starts looking at new technology, it should put more boots on the ground. He would rather see a new fire station and a wildland division for the growing wildland-urban interface.

“First things first,” he said. “Fund those things and then work down the list.”

The cameras also need to be installed at a vantage point high in the air. Building those towers would also cost money, though the city says it could use some existing cellphone towers and water towers. Martinez says the cost could be also be spread out over time

“The poles, the wires, the cameras, those are very expensive,” he said. “But if you agree to a long-term lease, then you string that cost out and you finance it over time.”

The city manager’s office is exploring whether the system is right for Austin. If the City Council approves the purchase, Central Texas will be the first place in the United States with the technology.

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