Fire detection cameras could make their way into Austin neighborhoods

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Wildfires in western Travis County in 2011 destroyed dozens of homes and damaged several more. Other large fires that year also destroyed homes in Oak Hill, Spicewood, and Bastrop.

Those wildfires led communities all over Texas to look for better ways to keep wildfires under control.

To help detect the flames faster, one high-tech system that promises to spot the flames could be coming to neighborhoods in Austin.

“We were watching the smoke in the distance and wondering if the smoke was going to come this way,” said Wayne Oplind, who remembers shuttling family out of Steiner Ranch during the fires.

The ever-present wildfire risk in Central Texas has the city looking into purchasing smoke detection cameras.

“If I knew that it worked…and it’s an early warning to keep it from burning homes,” Oplind said, “it’s a good deal.”

Nearly 350,000 homes are at high wildfire risk in Travis County, according to Alfred Stanley with Firewatch America. He says smoke detection cameras like this one now installed in Westlake can save lives.

“When it finds smoke an alert is sent to a control station where human operators can analyze it and decide on an appropriate response,” Stanley said.

The cameras cost $200,000 each. Operation costs could add $348,000 annually.

“I’ve given Austin, Travis County a plan involving 13 towers that would cover all of Travis County,” Stanley added.

But at that cost, residents like Wayne Oplind still have a lot of questions.

“Is it full of false alarms? Is it enough warning for the fire department to react in time?” he asked. “Without knowing that, I don’t know if the city should do it.”

If approved, crews would start installing cameras in the coming weeks at designated high points throughout the city.

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