Council says wildfire mitigation should be a priority in budgeting, CodeNEXT

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Though arson was to blame for a series of fires set along the Barton Creek GreenbeltThursday, we wanted to check back in on where Austin stands on wildfire protection.

Thursday, Austin City Council adopted the Austin Strategic Direction 2023 Plan, that prioritizes budgeting for areas most at risk due to a changing climate. That includes extreme heat, drought and flooding, along with wildfires.

“That’s why it’s so important that we mentioned protection against fires and floods and other kinds of risks like that as part of our Strategic Plan, so that when we’re looking at our budget, we’re going to be looking at what we need to be doing, what we need to be funding, what we need to be investing in, to make sure that our neighborhoods and our homes are safe,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said.

Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks has been raising concerns for months, saying the city is “way, way behind” where it should be on identifying areas with risk and calls the current Countywide Wildfire Protection Plan more of a “starting point,” adding, when you have a greenbelt, with a lot of fuels, backing up to homes, there needs to be some mitigation.

KXAN sat down with Glee Ingram, who started the volunteer group the Greenbelt Guardians.

“Oh, that’s so easy to talk about how I’m passionate about the greenbelt,” Ingram said. “I’ve lived here in this residence for half my life.”

It’s a passion Ingram has shared with her Barton Hills neighbors. Just last weekend, they worked to clear up one of the trailheads.

“We have to get out invasive weeds,” she explained, talking about her decision to preserve what makes the greenbelt special. “It gets so stressful in urban environments and the natural world calms the whole nervous system down.”

The Greenbelt Guardians handle what they can, while still counting on others.

“I give thanks that we have fire departments and skillful people,” Ingram said. “Certainly it’s alarming to have big fires.”

Kitchen sent an email out to her district Thursday, updating them on the arson situation and reminding them wildfire management has been a priority for her office.

“It’s important that our code, our new land development code, looks at fire protection,” Kitchen told KXAN.

For example, outlining what wildfire protections builders should include and development that supports evacuation plans.

“We’ve got to make sure our roadways are connected and are in the appropriate shape for neighborhoods that — where people are living close to risky areas,” Kitchen said.

As for the greenbelts, the Parks and Recreation Department says while it does go in and remove invasive plants, like Chinaberry, Bamboo, and Ligustrum, and different times throughout the year, currently it does not mitigate or cut back the brush.

It’s a conversation Kitchen says the council should consider when budgeting and dedicating resources.

“Our neighborhoods along the greenbelt have talked for some time about the importance of both a mitigation plan and sort of a response plan or an evacuation plan for neighborhoods,” she said.

As Central Texas goes into wildfire season, there are some things you can do to prepare.

First, clear brush and trees from around your house. The idea is to create a defensible space so flames have a harder time jumping from plants to your home. Make a plan. Map out your evacuation routes. Consider specific needs of people in your home, such as medications or disabilities. Build a basic disaster supply kit. Include a first aid kit, water, food, dust masks, extra batteries. Have a to-go bag, with important documents inside in case you need to make a run for it.

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