Wildfire plan could cut catastrophe risk

Firefighters from around the state battle a large wildfire on Highway 71 near Smithville, Texas, Monday, Sep. 5, 2011. A roaring wildfire raced unchecked Monday through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Texas, destroying nearly 500 homes during a rapid advance fanned in part by howling winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. (AP Photo/Erich Schlegel)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — There’s a growing risk of wildfire in increasingly populated and parched Travis County, but a plan geared toward community involvement could help lower the risk of a catastrophic blaze, says one wildfire expert with the Austin Fire Department.

Fire officials from departments throughout Travis County, led by AFD and county officials, have created a Community Wildfire Protection Plan with the hope that the patchwork of local fire districts and the communities within them would have a common document to guide them.

The plan is tailored to the varied geographic regions of Travis County. It assesses each area’s unique fire danger and how to reduce it.

It’s all part of an effort to preempt deadly wildfires like those that burned through Central Texas in 2011. The worst of those fires killed two people, burned 32,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,600 homes in Bastrop County, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Kyle Swarts, a lieutenant with the Pedernales Fire Department, said the 2011 wildfires woke up Central Texas communities and made them realize wildfire is a regional issue that transcends manmade jurisdictions.

“Wildfires don’t care about arbitrary boundary or visible boundary lines and this city or that city,” Swarts said. “When a wildfire pops up, it is going to do what it wants to do.”

But while Travis County created the plan to reduce wildfire risk, some neighboring counties haven’t followed suit, including Hays and Williamson.

Swarts said he would not comment on the firefighting plans or situations in any other county.

“But, in a general sense, yes, it would be ideal if every community and every county got on board with this,” he said, regarding the creation of a wildfire plan and taking measures to reduce wildfire risk. “If a community is not doing it, they are unfortunately putting themselves more at risk and their neighbors more at risk,” Swarts added.

Wildfire risk area
Wildfire risk varies greatly throughout Central Texas. This map illustrates fire danger. The lighter green areas indicate less danger, darker yellow and orange indicate higher danger. Courtesy, Texas A&M Forestry Service


‘Unique challenge’

The 300-plus-page plan is broken down into several chapters that outline particular risks for each area of Travis County. Creation of the plan was joint funded between the City of Austin and the county.

Oak Hill Fire Department Chief Jeffrey Wittig said the level of detail in the plan—it notes each area of the county’s particular wildfire risk factors—is especially important given the county’s widely varying geography.

A wildfire on the grassy east side of the county would move fast and consume a lot of acreage—fire crews would need to move quickly with lots of water, Wittig explained. Whereas, a wildfire would burn hotter and be less accessible on the county’s rockier and more wooded west side.

“The makeup of Travis County is so drastically different that is possesses this kind of unique challenge for us,” he said.

And like the varied geography, each fire department also known as emergency services district, faces its own unique obstacles. For instance, the Pedernales Fire Department has more rural terrain and access to fewer fire hydrants than the West Lake Hills Fire Department, he added.

But while West Lake Hills is closer to the Austin’s core and has more pipes and hydrants to help fight fires, its neighborhoods sit in the midst of “wildland-urban interface,” Swarts said.

Wildland-urban interface occurs when urban or suburban areas border wildland, which is more prone to wildfire.

“If a really bad wild-land fire starts in the middle of West Lake Hills, their losses are going to be catastrophic,” Swarts said.

Reducing risk in the wildland-urban interface is a critical aspect of the plan.

“The WUI provides the greatest challenge in wildfire protection and preparedness efforts and is often the source of human-caused fires,” the plan states.

Wittig said one of his biggest challenges is the 4,000 acres of property managed by the Nature Conservancy located within his department’s jurisdiction. Few people touch the land, which makes a fire less likely. However the land is also raw, open and little wildfire mitigation work has been done on it.

Golden Cheeked Warbler, Jason Crotty, Flickr
Golden Cheeked Warbler, Jason Crotty, Flickr

Some endangered Golden Cheek Warblers have also been spotted on the property, Wittig said.

When endangered species are present, it can make prescribed burning—a controlled burn that lessens future risk of wildfire—more difficult.

Generally, Wittig said, fire departments have little authority to access private land or mandate fire prevention on private property. Most land in Texas is privately owned.

“We are in Texas, so the property owner is king,” Wittig said. “That means there are a lot of things we would like to be able to do, or suggest, or help with, but there’s no mechanism for us to require any of that.”

That’s where the plan comes in, said Justice Jones, a wildfire expert with the Austin Fire Department.

The plan is “scalable,” Jones said, meaning it can be used by a variety of different departments, communities and cities to help prevent wildfire.

The idea is to give individual property owners and communities the knowledge and information they need to take action and reduce the possibility of wildfire.

“It is really important that we approach wildfire risk and at all fronts and all levels,” Jones said.

And cash strapped fire departments in Central Texas can use all the help they can get.

Manchaca Fire Department Chief Chris Barron said his department operates on tight margins.

“We are one of the smaller EDSs although our call volume is going up,” Barron said. “We augment that with volunteers.”

Each ESD fire chief that KXAN spoke with said budgets are slim.

Travis County ESDs pull most of their funding from a sales tax levy from within their districts.

“Different districts have vastly different budgets to work with,” Swarts said. “We provide the best resources that our limited budget allows.”

According to the plan, the number one cause of wildfires is intentional starts, which can be nearly impossible to prevent. Regardless, the ignition sources for wildfires are as varied as the natural phenomena and human endeavors of a given area.

The complexity of wildfire danger is well illustrated by the ignition source of the 2011 Bastrop wildfires.

In that case, a tropical storm making landfall in Louisiana caused high winds in Central Texas that whipped together slack power lines causing hot molten material to fall on combustible brush already dried by record drought and low humidity, according to the plan.

Swarts said preventing another such catastrophe will take everyone working together to reduce wildfire fuels and risk.

For Barron, it is a slight concern that neighboring counties haven’t created a similar community plan yet, he said.

In 2011, “the fire community learned a lesson then that if we can do more on the preventative side it can hopefully lead to having to do less when it comes to fighting fire,” Barron said. “It does cause concern that other counties haven’t picked up on that yet and implemented it…but it does take resources, and it does take people.”

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