Homeowners plan neighborhood-wide wildfire drill after 2011 fires

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Homeowners in the Comanche Trail area on Lake Travis will take part in a neighborhood-wide wildfire drill Saturday, packing up the essentials and evacuating their homes as firefighters and other emergency responders practice techniques.

The drill, developed over a year and a half by Travis County commissioners, neighbors and emergency services, is in response to the 2011 wildfires that devastated parts of central Texas, including Steiner Ranch, just down the road from Comanche Trail.

“They know that they are in danger,” county commissioner Brigid Shea told KXAN.

Around 50 homeowners will participate, learning about the stress and possible problems involved in evacuating a neighborhood with only one way in and one way out.

Butch Ackman will be one of them. A leader in developing the fire drill plan, Ackman said their neighborhood is in a high-risk area for wildfires because of the thick vegetation that surrounds homes.

“All the fire people tell us that it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Ackman said. “So we have to be ready.”

Ackman had his go-bag laid out on the kitchen table Friday afternoon, a tote bag he planned to fill with his laptop, important papers, medication and the binder containing all the evacuation information he needs, including maps and lists of procedures.

When it comes time to evacuate for the real thing, he said, he’s optimistic.

“I’m thinking we’ll be in good enough shape that we’ll be able to get out of here, we won’t lose our lives, and God willing, we’ll keep our homes,” he said.

But the evacuation isn’t as simple as it might sound. There’s only one entrance into the Comanche Trail neighborhood, and the winding, steep roads are too narrow to allow a lot of traffic through at once. 

It’s the same problem homeowners in Steiner Ranch encountered as they tried to leave in 2011, and it’s one of the reasons the county is working with this neighborhood in particular on the drill.

“There’s a clear need for it,” Shea said. “When people are at home and a fire breaks out and they’ve got to get out, a lot of people don’t know what to do.”

Fire crews will practice wildfire response while other emergency responders direct traffic and try to get people out in a safe and orderly manner. Everyone will meet afterward, including the evacuees, to give feedback on the process and find places to improve.

“We’re going to make mistakes,” Shea said. “It’s not going to be perfect, and that’s the whole point of a drill.”

She also hopes the lessons they learn can be applied to other neighborhoods. County staff is already working on pinpointing other areas that face the same risk, Shea said, including possibly Steiner Ranch. 

She told KXAN it’s the first time a community in Texas has done a drill like this, and it might be the first in the nation. “We think if this works, we’re going to make it available nationwide, worldwide.”

The participating households represent about a quarter of the total neighborhood, and roughly 100 people are expected to leave. They’ll get a text message around 9 a.m. from a new alert system that it’s time to go, and they’ll evacuate. The drill should wrap up before noon.

Ackman said he’s proud of how all his neighbors have responded to the planning process. “It’s kind of a breath of fresh air,” he said. “If anybody can survive, we can.”

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