New sandbox fire simulator helps Austin predict wildfire spread

New Simtable is designed to help Austin firefighters better predict where wildfires will spread and how fast. (Photo:Bettie Cross)

Dry weather and merciless winds are fueling the wildfires in Southern California. Schools are closed, roadways are shut and nearly 200,000 people have been told to evacuate their homes.

For many Central Texans that type of danger and devastation is unimaginable, but not for Captain Josh Anderson who works in the Wildfire Division of the Austin Fire Department (AFD).

“It can happen in Austin,” said Captain Anderson. “The hills, the home construction and the vegetation are all very, very similar to what we have in California.”

What's different are the wind and weather patterns that drive fire behavior.

So to help make Austin better prepared for wildfires, AFD just invested $56,000 in a new firefighting tool. The Simtable uses crushed walnuts, a projector and specialized software to help fire departments better predict where wildfires will spread and how fast.

First the software analyzes variables like wind speeds, weather and vegetation in the area. Then a projector lays out a digital map on a table covered with walnut dust. The dust can be formed to represent hills, ravines, and other terrain. To keep it real, a lighter can even be used to spark the digital fire.

“The projection will give us a good approximation of what homeowners and firefighters can expect to encounter during a wildfire interaction,” said Captain Anderson.

For residents, the Simtable is designed to bring the danger home. AFD plans to use it as a teaching tool to remind homeowners the role they play in fire prevention.

“Clean out their gutters, cutback their trees and move the firewood away from their homes,” said Captain Anderson.

The new tool will be put to the test for the first time on Thursday night. Residents of two West Austin neighborhoods will get to play in the sandbox. While it may sound like fun and games, AFD isn't playing around when it comes to what can be learned with the help of walnut dust. Captain Anderson is hoping Steiner Ranch and Jester Estates will use the interactive map to learn more about rapid fire spread and evacuations.

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