The Texas Forest Service on Friday unveiled the new app, the Texas Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal, or TxWRAP, on the steps of the state Capitol. Built in conjunction with the Texas A&M University System, it uses mapping technology to allow homeowners and the general public -- not just emergency response officials -- to scrutinize areas up to within a 2-mile radius of where they live to spot places where wildfires might erupt.
Its projections are based on factors including drought, wind, humidity and other climate conditions, as well as an area's topology and even things such as shrubs near homes and other buildings that could feed the flames.
Some 26,000 fires across Texas since December 2010 have burned more than 3.9 million acres. The worst was in the town and surrounding county of Bastrop, near Austin, where blazes in September killed two people, destroyed more than 1,650 homes and charred 33,000 acres.
Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp said the app, "was a first and only of its kind in the world and will save a lot of lives and save a lot of property." He said he expects the model to be copied by states and municipalities across the U.S.
Sharp said university researchers, state forest service officials and national experts have, "discovered a weather pattern that, when it happens in conjunction with a certain amount of humidity, a certain amount of wind and things like that, you can predict almost with certainty where wildfires are going to be."
As an example, Sharp pointed to the day before the Bastrop fires broke out, saying researchers were able to give local first-responders a map that had a red circle where the fire risk was most acute, helping to speed evacuations.
"It's one of the reasons that there was such a small loss of life that occurred," Sharp said, "and if you take the red circle and you put it over Bastrop County right now, it is almost exactly the burned area of that fire."
He said that now, when similar fire-friendly patterns develop, officials pass the information on to first-responders in the appropriate areas nationwide.
State Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who attended Friday's unveiling, said the app is designed to be exceedingly user-friendly. Asked if it might fuel unwarranted apprehension among some homeowners and others, he said the app would have the opposite effect.
"It will reduce panic because it will provide people with needed information," Watson said, "so that they can address necessary issues."