Williamson County unveils its first wildfire protection plan

Williamson County

WILLIAMSON COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — After almost a decade of work, Williamson County unveiled its first wildfire protection plan this week. 

County Judge Dan Gattis signed the Interjurisdictional Community Wildfire Protection Plan during the Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday. The Williamson County Office of Emergency Management and a large team of community stakeholders worked to develop this comprehensive plan to address the increasing threats of wildfires within the county. 

Jarred Thomas, the county’s director of emergency management, said it’s not a response plan, though. Instead the 120-page report points out areas within the county that are more at risk for wildfires and identifies strategies to reduce that danger. 

“The majority of the homes that have been lost in Williamson County to wildfire, at least recently, have all been in town, next to fields or unimproved property. A couple of homes were even lost in a residential neighborhood,” Thomas said. “It’s important that everyone understand there’s a wildfire risk regardless of where you live, what time of vegetation is around you. You still have a risk that you need to mitigate against.”

Thomas said the plan has made the county look for additional money to tackle more mitigation projects in its own parks and preserves. In early 2017 the county finished clearing a 50-foot “fuel break” along a five-mile stretch around the Southwest Williamson County Regional Park. That project was funded by a $500,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

The county, however, cannot mandate what homeowners and private landowners do, Thomas said. He and other county leaders, though, are asking those people to do their part to reduce the risk of wildfires. Those proactive measures include clearing away vegetation around homes, cleaning out gutter systems and maintaining debris around decks and yards. 

“People now have a tool that they can go in and look at their neighborhood and see what it was assessed, the threat level,” Thomas said, “and then also to begin mitigating issues around their own homes to make them more resilient against wildfires.”

Adele Harmon, who lives in Round Rock, said she appreciates the county finalizing this plan because wildfires are a concern in her densely populated neighborhood by the Southwest Williamson County Regional Park. 

“In the past when there have been wildfires in Leander, we could smell the smoke,” Harmon said. “That’s frightening.”

Representatives from the Texas A&M Forest Service told county commissioners Tuesday that Williamson County is now the 20th county in Texas to have such a plan. 

“It’s a recognition from the local community that they accept there is a risk from wildfire and that they’re going to work to decreasing that risk in the future,” Kari Hines, a wildlife urban interface specialist with the Texas A&M Forest Service, said. 

The wildfire protection plan has been finalized after county leaders began working on it in 2010. KXAN highlighted the seemingly slow pace to create it in an investigation that aired in 2015

Thomas explained Wednesday why it took so long. He attributed the delay to a number of factors, including low staffing, active wildfire seasons in the past and the wait to receive money for the contractor to complete the plan. 

Hays County finished drafting its first fire protection plan about a year ago. It’s in the process of being updated by the interim fire marshal. 

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