Wildfire danger prompts call for change in Austin code

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Fire officials are asking for new standards to take on wildfire dangers in Austin, telling a city commission nearly a quarter of Austin buildings face a wildfire risk.

In 2011, fires destroyed 57 homes and burned 7,000 acres in Travis County, according to Austin’s wildfire plan. Still, fire officials point out, although the city has a plan, it would like to see a measure placed into the city code books.

The fire department asked the Public Safety Commission Monday to consider adopting what’s known as a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) code. That’s code for a set of standards to outline best practices, strategies and rules to cover everything from managing vegetation to building guidelines in areas where development and neighborhoods meet green space.

“If we could just change a lot of the wooden decks over to non-flamable materials… Those decks are no longer wicks into your home in case of wildfires,” said Austin Fire Division Chief Palmer Buck.

Buck says the department is typically focusing on areas within 150 feet of a neighborhood.

“Over 24 percent of the structures in Austin have been determined through our risk assessment as being at risk from wildfire,” said Wildfire Division Manager Justice Jones at the commission meeting Monday. “So we’re looking at over 150,000 structures across the city at a value of over $9 billion in potential losses.”

Fire crews worked Tuesday clearing out dead limbs and fallen branches in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve behind Jester Estates.

“What we’re creating today is a shaded fuel break,” said Lt. Andre Delareza with the Austin Fire Department. “It’s going to have a canopy overhead that shades [the area] and keeps those fine fuels from growing. That fine fuel is going to be the main carrier of a fire.”

Creating that kind of barrier is one of the practices the fire department would want the city to consider while looking at a potential WUI code. The code would also give official guidance and possibly create more firm regulations relating to vegetation management. Currently much of the management is voluntary. The fire department works with developers, private property owners, Austin Water, city departments, federal agencies and others to try to help control fire fuels by creating shaded fuel brakes or conducting prescribed burns.

“It’s a patchwork of different entities, but all have the same goal, which is to manage the land the best they can and to minimize wildfires,” said Buck in an October interview with KXAN News.

Currently the Public Safety Commission is discussing the idea. Fire officials asked them Monday to take up a WUI code proposal and put it in front of city council to consider.

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