Austin has new building requirements to curb wildfire risk


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Since January, the City of Austin has had new rules in place for certain construction and remodeling in an effort to prevent wildfires. Austin adopted the Wildland Urban Interface Code (or WUI Code) last spring and began implementing the code at the start of the year, a move which the city says makes Austin the largest major city in Texas to adopt such a code.

These codes are already commonplace in fire-prone areas of California, and Austin fire leaders believe adding these requirements is essential to reduce the risk of fires in Central Texas.

Austin’s WUI code requirements in the city apply to new construction, additions and remodels in the area within 150 feet of a 40-acre or larger wildland area, or within 1.5 miles of a 750-acre or larger wildland area. The code does not apply to existing structures, though Austin Fire Department is working to educate people who live in the code’s footprint about how they can reduce their risk.

The city says more than 60% of current structures in Austin are found within 1.5 miles of the WUI, with more buildings being built in that area every day. The City of Austin’s website also states that around 40% of Austin’s land area will be covered by the code.

You can read the full code here.

A map from Austin Fire Department of the Wildland Urban Interface Areas. Map from January 2020.

Austin’s fire risk

Austin and Central Texas face serious fire risks due to the combination of vegetation right next to populated urban areas. In fact, a 2019 CoreLogic report ranking the top 15 metropolitan areas for wildfire risk based on reconstruction cost value, the Austin area was ranked the fifth-highest risk in the country and was the only metro area in the top five outside of California.

CoreLogic notes that large and populous areas are at disproportionately high risk for the greatest loss potential from wildfires.

A table from a CoreLogic 2019 report showing fire risk in US metro areas based on estimated reconstruction cost.

How the code works

Austin’s fire leaders say the code is designed to ensure businesses and places where people live near wildland areas are protected from the next big fires.

In order for new construction projects or remodels which fall into the WUI area to obtain permits, the Austin Fire Department has to verify that these projects and properties are compliant with the code.

The code includes aspects like requiring buildings within 50 feet of vegetation that could fuel a fire to have exterior walls constructed of certain fire-resistant, non-combustible, or fire-retardant materials.

While the code went into effect on January 4, 2021, Division Chief Tom Vocke, Fire Marshal, explained “there have been some rollbacks in implementation.”

“Just common sense things where we’re working with home builders and some of the residential structures where we’re trying to make sure we’re implementing it fairly in a way that makes sense on the timeline that makes sense,” Vocke added.

“We’re looking to harden the structure to ensure when a fire does occur that its a lot less likely that we have spread to the structures and from structure to structure as well,” he explained, noting that most structure fires are started by embers spreading.

If you live in the WUI area but are not creating any new buildings or doing any remodeling, you don’t need to make any changes. But Austin’s Wildfire Mitigation division may visit your community to share some tips about how to reduce fire risk.

“We should worry about it because the science and our assessment tells us that Austin is one of the most at risk municipalities in the country,” noted Justice Jones, Austin’s Wildfire Mitigation Officer.

“Our public has been asking for something to help protect them from wildfire and we know this is the most strategic and sustainable way we can do that,” Jones added.

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