According to the rankings, 53,984 Austin residences are at high-to-extreme risk of wildfire damage, and the report estimates a $16.4 billion reconstruction price tag should the metropolitan area fall victim to a wild blaze. District 10 Council Member Alison Alter, who represents a large swath of West Austin that runs adjacent to greenspace and preserves, has been sounding the alarm for some time over the city’s and its surrounding suburbs risk.
“It’s not a matter of if, but when, we have a major wildfire here,” Alter said. She said it is up to local government to ensure the city and its property are as prepared as possible for that fateful day.
The city auditor’s office is preparing to publish a report on the city’s wildfire risk and preparedness and the auditors gave a City Council committee an early preview on Oct. 23. The report found issues in the city’s collection of mitigation data and concluded that the city could be doing more to mitigate risk and prepare for the event of a wildfire.
Wildland-urban interface refers to the transition zone between unoccupied, undeveloped land and human development. Within Austin, there are 647 miles of wildland-urban interface, 72% of which is on private land. Experts say this transition zone marks the areas with the highest wildfire risk.
Since 2016, Austin has been working on developing a wildland-urban interface code, which would usher in building and construction standards and mandate regulation of brush and vegetation in these transition zones. Assistant fire chief Richard Davis said he was hoping to get a final draft in front of City Council for a vote by the close of 2019.
Davis emphasized that regulating brush and vegetation on private land does not mean the city plans to level the flora around private residences. He said it is simply a necessary management and monitoring tool. Davis said wildfires are unique in their cascading effect, and increased wildfire risk on one property affects all the properties around it. Although the city can work to implement policies, private citizens have to do their part as well, Davis said.
“I think a lot of people have amnesia when it comes to the Bastrop wildfires in 2011,” Davis told Community Impact Newspaper. “They don’t think anything is going to happen until it does.”
Davis said residents should remain vigilant in cleaning their gutters, clearing out brush and managing their property’s vegetation. The city is working to expand the Austin Resource Recovery’s brush pick up service to the farther reaches of town, which, according to city maps, suffer from the highest wildfire risk.
District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he wanted to see more coordination with surrounding cities and suburbs in the metropolitan area. He said the metro coordinates on flood mitigation, so it doesn’t make sense to not coordinate on wildfire risk. He also recommended the city work on evacuation drills in the highest risk areas.