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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Fire Department has formalized a new system to alert the proper agency if their work fighting a fire will impact local waterways in any way — a change prompted by a fire at Texas French Bread Company last year.
In general, an eight-month study found “firefighting activities present a relatively low risk of harm to aquatic life or other significantly adverse water quality impacts.” And, AFD is already in the habit of letting the Austin Watershed Department know if any hazardous material has been released or any spills have happened that could affect water quality. The AWD “protects lives, property and the environment of our community by reducing the impact of flood, erosion and water pollution,” according to its website.
However, this collaboration was prompted by a March 2022 City Council resolution, which wanted to make notifications of potential impact from firefighting a requirement to ensure the communication is happening consistently. It came after a fire at Texas French Bread Bakery in downtown Austin in January 2022, which is less than half a mile from Shoal Creek.
After an eight-month study from AWD, the two agencies worked to determine what can be done to better protect waterways.
According to the memo, AFD now will alert TWD and have it respond to assess environmental impacts when:
- Estimated water use over 10,000 gallons, or over one-hour total duration of water flow; or
- Significant foam runoff leaving the site (e.g., foam runoff is greater than 1″ deep); or
- Firefighting water is known or suspected to discharge to a receiving wet creek; or
- There is uncertainty if WPD should be involved. When in doubt, AFD will send notification
TWD said it has “limited options” for what it can do in response, but some include diverting firefighting flows away from waterways and dechlorinating them.
How’d they determined new requirements
WPD realized it needed more data to understand how firefighting affects local waterways, so it went to every fire between Feb. 23, 2022 and Oct. 28, 2022 (a total of 84). It found 17 of those fires had runoff that went into a storm sewer or waterway, and only one led to WPD needing to use dechlorination tablets to offset the effects.
Prior to the study, WPD said it could only think of two other instances where firefighting had resulted in fish being killed: the Texas French Bread Bakery fire and another restaurant fire in March 2009.
It’s worth noting that firefighters can do what they need to do to effectively douse fires and are exempt from federal, state and local water quality laws. But, according to a city memo, “the intent of increasing WPD’s response actions is not for the purposes of regulatory enforcement, but for the proactive environmental protection to the maximum extent practical.”