Lake Travis area eyes wildfire prevention

Brush removal and public information campaigns heat up as weather warms, drought persists

Steiner Ranch resident Kimberly McLaughlin said she did not know about the fires that ravaged her neighborhood last summer until firefighters ran to her door and told her to evacuate within the next 10 minutes.

McLaughlin said she was in such a state of shock that the only things she grabbed were a blue bathing suit, a pair of white shorts and flip flops. For the next three days she could not return home due to the fires, giving her plenty of time to think about how unprepared she was for the fire and evacuation, she said.

"You go into shock," she said. "You need to preplan."

The wildfires that blazed through Central Texas last September destroyed 26 homes in Steiner Ranch, said Jim Linardos, chief of Travis County Emergency Services District No. 6, which covers Bee Cave, Lakeway and Steiner Ranch.

As the threat of wildfires heats up with the summer months, a coalition of groups have teamed together for a disaster prevention campaign aimed at the public in hopes that Central Texas residents like McLaughlin will be better prepared for future potential disasters, Linardos said.

The Travis County Wildland Task Force Committee, which was formed after the wildfires, is distributing a booklet called "Ready, Set, Go!" that instructs people how to prepare and respond to a wildfire.

The "Ready, Set, Go!" pamphlet is available at fire stations throughout Travis County and online at https://www.co.travis.tx.us/fire_marshal/.

"It doesn't mean that you have to take action, but if you have read the material and what you have to do, it makes that preparation a lot easier," said Mike Elliott, chief of the Westlake Fire Department.

Despite more than five inches of rainfall in May in the Austin area, Linardos and Elliott said the fire danger remains high this summer.

"The long-term weather planning says it's a prolonged drought," Linardos said. "We will get little blips of positive [rainfall], but we're still in a deficit. It's going to take a lot to turn that around."

Brush Removal

Linardos and Elliott said they have been trying to let property owners know the importance of clearing brush and maintaining their property to reduce the threat of wildfires.

Linardos said Steiner Ranch has been receptive to clearing brush, and the ESD will remove some of the area's overgrown vegetation this summer.

Elliott said it can be harder to convince some property owners in West Lake Hills to maintain their properties since the city was not directly impacted by last summer's wildfires.

"When you don't experience it yourself, you don't have quite the appreciation for what the results can be," he said.

West Lake Hills City Council amended its tree ordinances to allow property owners to request a no-fee permit to remove any small cedar trees. Cedar trees can be a fire hazard because they burn quickly.

West Lake Hills increased the code enforcement to remove all dead vegetation on all properties in the city. The city funded a brush collection program in 2011 that removed dead brush left at the curb by property owners.

Council is considering what types of variances may be allowed to streamline potential vegetation variance applications.

Elliott said the city's efforts are a good start at fire prevention efforts, but he added that the biggest worry is the canyons in West Lake Hills. The debris, leaves and dead limbs provide a significant fire hazard and are not easy to remove, he said.

"I don't know if that will ever be mitigated to a satisfactory state," he said.

Getting prepared

During a Lake Travis Commercial Association of Dealmakers luncheon held in May, Linardos said his ESD was not adequately prepared to handle last summer's wildfires.

ESDs are political subdivisions that provide emergency medical and fire services to unincorporated areas of Texas.

To better prepare for potential future wildfires, ESD No. 6 has brought on a seasonal crew and has done advanced wildland firefighter training for all of its firefighters, Linardos said. The ESD has also added a service contract with a bulldozer and an additional brush truck to remove the dead brush that creates a fire hazard.

However, Linardos said his department is still not funded at a level that he thinks is adequate to provide the needed coverage.

ESDs by state law can only tax property owners in the county up to 10 cents per $100 of valuation. ESD No. 6 also receives funding from a 2-percent sales tax on qualifying goods sold in the ESD's jurisdiction.

Between the two taxes, the district gets about $10 million in funding, Linardos said. He said most comparable ESDs get about twice as much in funding.

"It's easy to run a volunteer fire department at 10 cents, but when you have to pay firefighters, it's expensive," he said.

To increase funding, the state Legislature would have to permit the tax increase, and voters would have to approve it.

Linardos said he does not expect the Legislature to pass a tax increase, but other options are being considered for Travis County such as adding another ESD or merging several ESDs into one.

ESD No. 6 has five stations and will need at least two more to serve the district's growing population, Linardos said. The ESD has purchased property at Serene Hills Drive and Hwy. 71 and is eyeing property in the Hamilton Pool area for possible purchase.

The average emergency response time in the Lake Travis area is about 11 minutes for ESD No. 6. The recommended response time is between four and eight minutes, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Linardos said the additional stations would help reduce the response time.

"We are trying to do the best we can with what we got," he said. "I think we do a pretty good job with that."