New tool is chipping away at wildfire risk in Travis County

New wood chipper to help Lake Travis Fire Department help fight brush fires. (KXAN Photo/Dani Guerrero)
New wood chipper to help Lake Travis Fire Department help fight brush fires. (KXAN Photo/Dani Guerrero)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Lake Travis Fire Rescue has a new, cutting-edge tool when it comes to wildfire mitigation: a remote-controlled chipper than can maneuver itself over different types of terrain. This chipper is the first in the state for a fire department, according to Will Boettner, a Wildfire Mitigation Specialist with the department.

Firefighters on a Wildland Fuels Reduction Crew with Lake Travis Fire Rescue routinely spend time clearing out vegetation that could serve as wildfire fuel. It means cutting out dry grass, brush and trees that are easy, available fuel for wildfires. Sometimes these wildfires can begin with just a spark, if there’s enough dry greenery around to carry the flame. The crew then usually drags or carts what they’ve cut back to a chipper, which will chew the fuels into mulch.

This new machine will follow the firefighters, mulching and spreading as they work. It’s expected to cut down the workload and time that firefighters spend doing wildfire mitigation, which can free them up more easily for other tasks. The chipper also disperses mulch evenly on the ground, instead of making large, unsightly piles. The mulch it creates has far less oxygen exposure than dried-out trees, and keeps wildfire risk to a minimum. The chips also nourish the ground, eventually leading to better soil quality.

This department has seen harrowing events in the past. In 2011, it responded to the Steiner Ranch fire which destroyed more than 20 homes and damaged about 30 others. The Steiner Ranch fire scorched about 125 acres in the middle of a highly residential area.

Michael Hiler is a homeowner who still lives on one of the streets that saw the most damage during the Steiner Ranch blaze. He’s lucky — his landscaping got scorched, but his house was intact — however other houses down his street were decimated.

Hiler was so thankful to Lake Travis Fire Rescue for evacuating his family in time and fighting the fire so effectively that he reached out to the department to thank the firefighters involved: “I wrote an email to the fire department because I thought they did a really fantastic job, because my house is still standing and so are my neighbors’, and they were very compassionate.” He says members of the department continued to check in with his family months after they moved back in to their house to make sure everything was okay.

Not only does Hiler think this new tool is a great addition to the department, but it gives him peace of mind, knowing they’re using the chipper to keep future wildfires at bay. “If it’s something to make the fire department more efficient, make their job easier…for the dangerous job they have…you know, I’m all for it.”

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