How fighting wildfires statewide helps AFD protect Central Texas


AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s been a  busy week for firefighters in Central Texas. 

Wildfires have burned hundreds of acres in Travis, Llano, Blanco and Burnet counties just in the last few days, and the Austin Fire Department has helped local firefighters contain and extinguish them.

AFD battalion chief Josh Portie told KXAN they’re able to do so effectively because of their mutual aid work across the state. Portie is part of the department’s wildfire division, a group that didn’t exist until a few years ago.

After the bad Labor Day fires in 2011, the city dedicated resources specifically to wildfire response and protection, and AFD has been working to improve ever since, Portie said.

A small group of Austin firefighters went to West Texas last month to help put out a large complex of fires there. It’s far from the first time AFD has committed resources to other agencies in the state to protect their communities, and it won’t be the last.

AFD has a group of 70-75 firefighters who travel the state, including a core group of about 30 who are extensively trained in wildfire response. Those firefighters take what they learn from their colleagues from across the country and teach the rest of the department when they get back. All Austin firefighters are also certified as wildland firefighters.

“Depending on the day and the conditions, our tactics are going to change,” Portie said.

That experience means AFD is more capable of protecting communities and neighborhoods here at home, whatever the conditions might be.

As an example, Portie pulled a fire hose out of the brush truck headquartered at station 21 in west Austin. It’s smaller and less durable than the normal hose firefighters run when responding to a house fire, he said, comparing it almost to a garden hose.

Brush trucks carry a lot of that now based on what firefighters have learned protecting homes in other parts of the state. Crews can run a lot of that cheap hose to protect a house, then simply disconnect it and move on to the next house to do the same. It doesn’t matter if they lose some of that hose because it’s inexpensive to replace, and they save a lot of time by not rolling up the high-quality hose they would have used before.

In a rapidly-changing wildfire, saving time means saving homes and, in some cases, saving lives.

The same holds true for other equipment, like planes or helicopters, that the firefighters might have used elsewhere.

“Our firefighters now, because they’re versed and they have those relationships, they recognize and they can say, ‘Hey, look, that resource, which maybe we’ve never used inside the city limits, I’ve used it somewhere else and I know that it would work right here,'” Portie said.

The relationships with other departments are some of the biggest advantages to statewide mutual aid, he added. In the past, departments used different terminology, equipment and tactics, and anyone coming to help had to learn to adapt. Working together more is fostering uniformity.

“Before it was like every time we would show up, it was like the first time we meet,” he said. “Where, you know, now we’re able to hit the ground running.”

Two instances this week showed those new relationships. When fires broke out on FM 1626 in south Travis County and at Pace Bend Park at Lake Travis this week, departments other than AFD took the lead in fighting them.

But Austin firefighters showed up to help, and they knew right away who they were dealing with and how they could jump in right away to assist, Portie said. The relationships work both ways.

“I know that I can open up my phone or my computer and I can look and see what resources and equipment’s available to me right now,” he said.

The battalion chief also said the focus on the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise USA program is helping keep Austin safe. At least 46 communities around central Texas are registered as Firewise, according to NFPA data, meaning they commit to reducing the fire risk to their neighborhood.

The program is really about learning to live with wildfire in a way that doesn’t threaten homes or lives, Portie said, so all the new techniques they’re learning don’t have to be used as often.

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