Is Austin prepared for a wildfire? City Council wants to know

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Eight years ago this week, Bastrop County was the site of the most devastating wildfire in Texas history.

Much of our area now is currently in a period of moderate drought.

Mark Himmel and others in the Jester Estates neighborhood of Northwest Austin are aware of this.

The neighborhood borders the Balcones Preserve. Himmel says he and his neighbors try to clear brush and debris from around their homes and gutters.

“Drive around on a Thursday, you’ll see a lot of bags, recycled shrubs,” he said.

Maps released by the Austin Fire Department show where the city is most vulnerable to wildfire.

City Council District 8 in Southwest Austin has the most at-risk structures, followed by Council District 10 in Northwest Austin.

AFD has been working on a Wildfire-Interface Code, also known as the “WUI code” since 2016.

The code would implement new requirements for building materials on new construction, making them more fire-resistant. This would be near areas that have more fire-prone trees and brush.

AFD is expected to present the WUI Code to Austin’s city council sometime in October.

Justice Jones of AFD’s Wildfire Mitigation Division says homeowners within a mile and a half of the WUI area should be thinking about wildfire protection.

“It’s a combination of the home hardening and our communities being adapted to fire,” he said. “Just because you’re not in the woods doesn’t mean you’re out of them.”

District 10 council member Alison Alter says stronger standards for homes are badly needed, but so is a proper fuel mitigation plan.

Alter says she’s considering a budget amendment proposal that would fund a plan for Austin’s parks, to manage brush that fuels wildfires.

A recent report from the City Auditor said that Austin not only needed to adopt a WUI Code, but to do a better job clearing brush and debris in public areas of the city.

Jones says the city has cleared just 11% of the city’s 100 “treatable acres,” meaning high-risk areas that are within 150 feet of private properties.

With only a five-person fuels crew, Jones says it could take decades before these acres are treated.

But Alter says the audit didn’t answer how adequately prepared the city is for a major wildfire event.

She asked, “Are we putting enough resources into the right places given the magnitude of risk that we face?”

Among other ideas, Alter asked auditors to find out how Austin Resource Recovery could better collect brush on private land.

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