South Austin residents learn of wildfire risks, how to protect community homes

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In the wake of a devastating 2018 wildfire season in the state of California that made national headlines, the Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Division continues to encourage residents to prepare their homes and neighborhoods for potential local blazes.

AFD sent 21 firefighters to California in 2018 to help save lives and property. Returning firefighters were able to share new techniques learned through the experience with local colleagues.

“Austin has a lot of topography and vegetation very similar to California, and we’re building our neighborhoods in a manner that leads to very similar evacuation complexity that we see in California,” wildfire division geospatial analyst Nate Casebeer said.

Casebeer was one of three members of the wildfire division who spoke to South Austin residents at the Feb. 20 Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods meeting. The group showed residents fire simulations in South Austin and shared information about protecting homes.

“While the fire department is fighting the main fire, your house could be burning many miles away and you don’t even know about it,” Casebeer said. “That’s why we push home-hardening techniques so you can multiply the chances of your house surviving a wildfire.”

A history of fires

AFD wildfire Lieutenant Chris Dibrell said the wildfire division was created in 2011 after fires in Bastrop County burned for nearly two months that fall. The fire killed two, destroyed over 1,700 structures and homes, and did over $350 million in damages, according to county records.

High winds and drought conditions aided the fire’s spread. Dibrell said Texas was at the tail end of a 10-year drought in 2011, which made for dangerous fire conditions. While Travis County only has 2-3 “red flag,” or high-fire-risk days in a typical year, there could be one every 2-3 weeks during a drought.

Simultaneous to the Bastrop fires, a fire burned about 160 acres in the Northwest Austin neighborhood Steiner Ranch, destroying over 20 homes. Dibrell said because of the magnitude of the Bastrop fires and lack of resources in the county, fire service was diverted from Steiner Ranch.

In April of that same year, a 100-acre fire destroyed 10 homes and caused $5 million in damages in the Oak Hill area near the Austin Community College Pinnacle campus.

Although cooler, wet conditions have persisted in early 2019, the drought in the first half of 2018 lead to numerous fires in Central Texas. APD has responded to over 1,000 fire starts over the past 6 years, Casebeer said.

Fire potential and threats

The key factors that influence a wildfire are weather, topography and the amount of fuels—such as brush and vegetation—available to burn, Dibrell said. Hot, dry and windy conditions bring high wildfire risk. During a fire, flames travel uphill quicker than downhill, he said.

“We have greenbelts that stretch right into the city of Austin, and these work as funnels to carry a fire from a wildland area right into the heart of town,” Casebeer said.

Wildlands take up 55 percent of Travis County and 27 percent of Austin, according to the wildfire division. About 61 percent of homes in Austin are within the wildland-urban interface, meaning they are located less than 1.5 miles from wildlands. If a wildfire were to ignite, homes within the interface could see direct impacts.

“We know embers can travel up to a mile and a half and start other fires and catch your house on fire,” he said. “Even if there is a fire [in]a greenbelt, homes elsewhere are going to be vulnerable.”

Neighborhoods with single entry points that are adjacent to wildlands are at a higher risk. Limited access can prevent fire trucks from reaching a fire, especially when an evacuation order is in place, Dibrell said.

The majority of grass fires begin when car exhausts create embers while in traffic. Other common causes are people being careless with barbecues, similar hazards at parks or greenbelts and activity in homeless camps, Casebeer said.

Preparing for fires

Wildfire division Project Manager Louise Liller said checking simple things around a property such as tree limbs, vegetation and house vents can make a big difference in protecting a home. 

“If there’s a fire event, there’s not going to be a fire truck at every single home,” Liller said. “How your home is going to be protected is what you do before an event.”

AFD offers a “Ready, Set, Go!” wildfire preparedness guide and checklist residents can use to assure their homes are better protected.

“Houses that have already made themselves defensible are the houses that we’re going to spend time trying to protect,” Dibrell said. “If we come up to a house that’s covered in overgrowth and [has]trees right next to it, no matter how much time we spend, we’re not going to be able to save it.”

Liller also encouraged residents to sign up to receive emergency notifications through www.warncentraltexas.com.

“For all firefighters, the very first thing they are focused on is saving lives,” Liller said. “Before they can even think about fighting the fire [and protecting homes], they need to make sure everybody is safe.”

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Nicholas Cicale
Nick was born in Long Island, New York and grew up in South Florida. He graduated from Florida State University in 2012 with a bachelor's degree in writing and a minor in music. Nick was a journalist for three years at the St. James Plaindealer in Minnesota before moving to Austin to join Community Impact Newspaper in 2016.
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