West Austin communities take action to heighten wildfire awareness

On May 7, residents of the Austin Lake Hills and Barton Creek West neighborhoods gathered at a local church for a presentation on the National Firewise Communities program by firefighter Will Boettner, who is also a wildland urban interface specialist with the Texas A&M University Forest Service. A week later, on May 14, residents of the Four Points, Lakeway and West Lake Hills areas joined in a three-day discussion to provide feedback to Austin and Travis County officials formulating a community wildfire protection plan.

According to Firewise.org, as of May 9, among 40 states there were 895 recognized National Firewise Communities including Long Canyon, River Place, Steiner Ranch, Spicewood developments of Barton Creek Lakeside and The Reserve at Lake Travis, and West Lake Hills. Lakeway became the 900th city to secure a National Firewise Communities designation. Barton Creek West and Austin Lake Hills are not currently Firewise communities.

Barton Creek West resident Barbara Spannaus, who grew up in Altadena—the foothills of Southern California's canyonlands—listened to the May 7 presentation. After living through numerous wildfire evacuations, Spannaus is familiar with fire risk. She lost her family home to wildfire in the early 1990s.

"We are sitting on a tinderbox," Spannaus said, 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 loss from wildfires cannot be totally eliminated, the National Firewise Communities program is geared toward 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," he said.

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 in the past few years. The National Weather Service is predicting Central Texas will see drier and warmer-than-normal conditions during the next three months, resulting in a greater-than-normal chance for wildfires in the area, Boettner said.

The area's topography, with its grasslands to the east and Hill Country to the west, is conducive to wildfires, said Buddy Crain, Ce-Bar Fire Department chief.

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 that can spread a fire to taller vegetation, and creating fire breaks, physical barriers that provide a lack of fuel and minimize the chance of fires spreading. Boettner advised residents to create a 30-foot fire break around their homes as increased protection against wildfire.

Local feedback for wildfire plan

Over the course of May 14–16, members of various western Travis County communities met with county staffers to discuss issues related to wildfire risk in their specific areas. Residents identified community assets needing wildfire protection and voiced concerns. Input from the program will be used to prepare a template for each community to develop specific ways to lessen wildfire risk.

"We can only do so much as a neighborhood," said Natasha Collman, a Steiner Ranch Firewise Committee member. "We need all the other players to make an impact."