On May 7, residents of the Austin Lake Hills and Barton Creek West neighborhoods gathered at Austin Bible Church for a presentation on the growing National Firewise Communities Program by Will Boettner, a firefighter and Wildland Urban Interface Specialist with the Texas A&M Forest Service.
According to Firewise.org, as of May 9, there were 895 recognized National Firewise Communities in 40 states including Lakeway, Long Canyon, River Place, Steiner Ranch, the Spicewood developments of Barton Creek Lakeside and The Reserve at Lake Travis, and West Lake Hills. Currently, Jester Estates in West Austin is working with Boettner's office on wildfire risk solutions.
In the audience, Barton Creek West resident Barbara Spannaus, who grew up in Altadena, California—the foothills of Southern California's canyonlands—listened intently. After living through numerous evacuations following the threat of wildfires, Spannaus is very familiar with the threat of wildfires. The 65-year-old lost her family home to wildfire in the early 1990's.
"We are sitting on a tinderbox," said Spannaus, noting the development's greenbelt border. "In Barton Creek West, we need to be more proactive about preventing fires and saving our homes."
Although the risk of devastating loss from wildfire cannot be totally eliminated, the National Firewise Communities program is geared to reducing that risk, Boettner said. "It used to be there was 'wildlife' and there was 'urban'. But then we wanted to nestle our homes [in the wildlife] and be greeted by a serene green world.
"It's not an 'if' we're going to have a wildfire, it's a 'when.'"
Boettner said that the "new normal" of drier, hotter summers with decreased humidity and more wind have led to an increase in the potential for wildfires over the past few years. Boettner said that the National Weather Service, is predicting Central Texas will see drier and warmer than normal conditions over the next three months resulting in a greater than normal chance for wildfires in the area.
At the May 7 event, Buddy Crain, Chief of the Ce-Bar fire department based on South Commons Ford Road off Cuernavaca Drive, said that the area's topography, with its grasslands to the east and hill country to the west, is conducive to wildfires. Crain's specific concern focused on the community's deep canyons, rocky ridges and limited access to the development.
The National Firewise Communities program attempts to balance the ecological and aesthetic needs of an area to control the risk of spreading a wildfire, Boettner said. The program advocates removing ladder fuels, or lower grasses which can spread a fire to taller vegetation, and creating fire breaks, physical barriers which provide a lack of fuel to minimize chance of fires burning beyond their borders. Additionally, Firewise provides a list of fire resistant materials for building or remodeling as well as information on how vegetation management and landscaping can reduce the risk of wildfire damage to a home.
Boettner cited the dangers of embers to homesites, recommending that homeowners keep their gutters clean to guard against such firebrands flying out of a blaze and igniting the debris. Boettner advises residents to create a 30-foot defensible barrier around their homes as increased protection against fire and embers.
One aspect of the program, "Ready, Set, Go", encourages families to develop a personal wildfire action plan. Boettner said that this plan would provide a guide as to what a family should do in the case of an approaching wildfire such as preparing important documents and necessary medication in advance, leaving doors unlocked for firefighter access, attaching garden hoses to outside spigots and leaving the lights on in the home.