Fire union says city is ‘way behind’ in fully preparing for wildfires

Steiner Ranch fires in 2011 (KXAN Photo)
Steiner Ranch fires in 2011 (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s firefighters union says the city is running dangerously behind when it comes to preparing for the next wildfire.

A new wildfire plan aimed at improving public safety was originally supposed to be implemented in January 2018. KXAN spoke the Austin Fire Department and union to break down what the delay means for Austin, one of the top three most at-risk areas for wildfire damage in the country.

Mike McKenney and his wife Diane live in Jester Estates. Their home backs up to the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve.

“Quite frankly, you know when there’s no problem, it’s a very scenic spot,” he said.

But the peace and privacy that comes with a one-way-in and one-way-out neighborhood is also a factor that can quickly become a concern if there was ever an evacuation.

“It probably became, you know, a reality when we had those several years of major drought where there were more wildfire,” Diane said. “And in a community similar to ours there was a wildfire.”

Diane and Mike thought back to the 2011 Steiner Ranch wildfire. “That was a time that really did hit home in terms of the fact that — wow. It could happen to us,” he said.

City of Austin Fire Marshal Rob Vires says the International Code Council Committee, which is developing the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Code Austin plans to adopt, is running behind schedule.

“So we’re looking at April or May for our part, instead of it being in January,” Vires explained.

The code sets standards for everything from managing vegetation to requirements for new development to reduce the wildfire risk.

“We’re looking at a way to make things safer for folks, looking for direction that is repeatable and equitable that can help folks as they’re developing our city, to make it to where folks can get in and out of their developments in a safe fashion,” Vires said. “Working on this code adoption would help design communities that aren’t in a one-way-in one-way-out deal.”

But Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association is sounding the alarm, saying “we are way behind” and not fully prepared for the next big wildfire.

“It’s been my experience that when the fires are burning there’s a lot of interest. When the fires go out, the interest wanes. Unless we decide to make it our priority and get this code done, unless we make it a priority to make sure the fuels are being mitigated and these important metrics are being reported back to council to make sure that this is being done, we’re not prepared,” Nicks said. “We’re behind on getting the WUI code implemented, we’re behind on identifying these most hazardous areas and doing something about it.”

According to the city’s own timeline, outlined in a city memo, wildfire risk maps were supposed to be done in March. KXAN learned from AFD on Thursday that they were completed in June, but have not yet done to the city council for approval.

In 2011, wildfires burned 7,000 acres and destroyed 57 homes in Travis County.

KXAN also found out AFD’s wildfire division is taking a hit — temporarily. Vires said because of concerns regarding AFD’s overtime budget, the department is having to shift resources. Two lieutenants in the division will have to take on the job responsibility of three until the overtime situation is under control. At this time, there’s no clear answer as to how long that may be.

In May, KXAN Investigates revealed Austin city workers rake in more overtime than some of the state’s largest cities. At the top of that list was the fire department. It’s racked up nearly a million hours in overtime since 2015. AFD said the problem lies with not enough applicants, mass retirement and a union contract allowing firefighters overtime even if they’ve taken vacation in the same period. After KXAN’s investigation, city council members asked the city auditor to step in.

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