AUSTIN (KXAN) – According to financial services company CoreLogic, which ranked cities based on the number – and value – of homes at risk in a wildfire, Austin ranks highest of any city on the list outside of the state of California.
- Los Angeles, Calif.
- Riverside, Calif.
- San Diego, Calif.
- Sacramento, Calif.
Bill McMillin lives in the Highland Park West/Balcones Area Neighborhood, just feet from the Bright Leaf Preserve. The preserve is a natural slice of Austin, originally belonging to Austinite Georgia B. Lucas but now managed by Austin Water.
The large plot of undeveloped wildland west of MoPac near Mount Bonnell serves to protect endangered species like the Golden-cheeked Warbler.
Living next to the swaying cedar trees and dry brush comes with worries for Bill and his family.
“It’s beautiful land, it’s a great view, and it’s great to have,” McMillin said. “But when it catches on fire, we’re going to be in big trouble. We know that it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when we may get a wildfire.”
Although Austin’s rainfall has been relatively normal over the last several months, all it takes is a few weeks of dry, hot weather to create a “flash drought” – crisping vegetation and priming it for a wildfire.
Dr. Tom Jeffrey, senior hazard scientist at CoreLogic, is a wildfire expert who studies the risk that wildfires pose to homes and people.
“When you drive through Austin, or fly over Austin even for a better birds-eye view, you begin to see how much of that natural vegetation you have in that area, and it’s all kind of interspersed with the development that is constantly moving, constantly growing,” Jeffrey said.
“Fuel is by far the most important factor. So the natural vegetation that’s out there is what is really going to drive this. But there are other modifiers that really can enhance how that fuel burns, and one of those is terrain.”
“The terrain is very hilly,” McMillin said, walking the perimeter of his property.
Bill hopes that Austin Water will remove dead brush which can act as kindling. Austin Water took over the management of the preserve in August 2021.
They told us that as part of the federal Balcones Canyonland Conservation Plan, they take steps to actively minimize wildfire risks on the preserve including installation of shaded fuel breaks to stop the spread of a potential wildfire, but Bill wants them to do more.
“I’m concerned about it,” McMillin said. “A thrown cigarette off of 2222 down the hill there, or whatever. A fire can start at any time.”
Even Austin homeowners who do not live on the wildland urban interface may be at risk from a wildfire since embers can travel a mile or more in strong winds. The Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Division recommends you clean out gutters and trim trees away from your home to be more wildfire-ready.
Enter your address into this interactive map from Austin Fire to determine your wildfire risk. The Austin Fire Department’s Wildfire Division will assess your home’s risk in-person for free. A person may contact the AFD Wildfire Division and request an assessment.
“Harden your house,” McMillin recommends. “Be a little bit more diligent about making sure that your house is as well-protected as possible against wildfire.”