Wildfire prevention dominates Lakeway budget workshop

Lakeway City Forester Carrie Burns discussed wildfire risk in Lakeway during the Sept. 9 special meeting.

Lakeway City Forester Carrie Burns discussed wildfire risk in Lakeway during the Sept. 9 special meeting.

Wildfire prevention has proven a crucial topic during Lakeway's budget discussions over the last several months, and the latest presentation from Lakeway staff sought to hammer home how important that effort will be moving into the next four years.

The wildfire discussion occurred during the Sept. 9 special meeting, which City Council began with an executive session deliberation regarding how to use leftover funds from the bond money used to build the $23 million Lakeway Police Department building that opened earlier this year.

Mayor Sandy Cox said none of the funds could be carried over into any maintenance and operations for the upcoming fiscal year, but there are possible uses for the money the city will explore.

Following that revelation, Lakeway City Forester Carrie Burns made the case for the wildfire prevention budget expenditure by citing information from the Texas Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal that shows the Hamilton Greenbelt in Lakeway to be at "high to very high" risk of wildfire.

Within these classifications, large flames ranging from 30 feet to 150 feet in length are possible, along with strong fire-induced winds, Burns said.

City documents list the six highest priority tracts for risk reduction to be the Hamilton Greenbelt, North Lakeway Village, Sailfish Park, City Park, Rebel Park and the Hurst Creek Road Greenbelt, all of which combine for 208 acres with the whole of Hamilton accounting for almost half at 94 acres.

Of three options for wildfire prevention presented to council, Burns recommended implementing what are called "shaded fuel breaks" in concert with cleanup around the trails throughout the Hamilton Greenbelt. That process would cost about $133,000, Burns said.

Shaded fuel breaks implement a process that includes the removal of standing dead trees and downed wood and brush. Burns also recommended clearing the remaining five tracts within the next three years.

City documents show the biggest estimated costs for the highest priority tract in the city—the Hamilton Greenbelt—come in at about $350,000.

"We're looking for the gold standard when it comes to wildfire mitigation," said Chris Rae, Lake Travis Fire Rescue's wildfire mitigation expert, adding certain other portions of the city such as the greenbelt in Rough Hollow were not included because it is a privately owned tract, but it remains a high priority.

There are 46 total acres within the 208 total that Rae said were the highest priority for his team to work, should council approve the prevention effort, which would amount to $289,800 of the project's total cost for all six tracts.

"The main point here I want to come across to council is ... we've learned with wildfire science, it's not just the big flames that affect wild fires," Rae said. "It's the embers, too."

It is crucial to encourage the Lakeway community as a whole to join in the wildfire mitigation effort and become more wildfire ready, especially through what are called Home Ignition Assessments, Rae said, citing recent wildfires in Paradise, California, that destroyed the entire city.

"They had about $1 billion just in insurable losses," Rae said.

Acting City Manager Julie Oakley said the city has allocated $321,000 to its capital reserve fund that is acting as a placeholder until council decides how specifically to use the money with reference to the project.

Cox suggested that rather than funnel money from the city's capital expenditures coffer, the wildfire prevention project could be one of the allowable uses of the leftover bond money from the police building that council discussed during executive session.

Burns said she is working on a partnership between Texas Conservation Corps and LTFR, but until that happens she is not sure if the entire Hamilton Greenbelt effort could be completed within a one-year time frame.

Cox suggested that if the city earmarked $350,000 for the all-inclusive cleanup of the Hamilton Greenbelt while simultaneously giving Burns more flexibility on a timeline for completion, it could also serve as a learning experience for the city with regard to future similar endeavors.

The other members of City Council agreed Cox's suggestion seemed the most prudent, and Oakley said she would work with Burns to create the most cohesive plan and also check with the city's bond attorneys to make sure the allocation from the police building bond reserve is allowable.

Should that plan move forward, council will take the $321,000 in the capital reserve fund set aside for the wildfire prevention effort and determine where it might best serve the city's budgetary needs.
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By Brian Rash

Brian has been a reporter and editor since 2012. He wrote about the music scene in Dallas-Fort Worth before becoming managing editor for the Graham Leader in Graham, Texas, in 2013. He relocated to Austin, Texas, in 2015 to work for Gatehouse Media's large design hub. He became the editor for the Lake Travis-Westlake publication of Community Impact in August 2018.


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