Firefighters taking wildfire precautions to protect homes


by ASHLEY GOUDEAU / KVUE News and Photojournalist ERIN COKER

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Posted on January 15, 2014 at 6:33 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 15 at 6:41 PM

AUSTIN -- Surrounding portions of the Balcones Canyon Land Preserve is the Jester Estates neighborhood.

"The trees are great, said resident Danelle Sasser. "I mean it's a beautiful neighborhood."

But the picturesque trees and the wild land they sit on also pose a threat. They could be fuel for a wildfire -- a danger that remains on the minds of many homeowners even three years after the devastating Labor Day wildfires in Bastrop and Steiner Ranch.

"I think all of us are at risk because the wind can carry, as we know from Bastrop. The wind has a lot to do with it," Sasser added.

So before a fire starts, firefighters from Austin's Wildfire Mitigation Division are stepping in.

"We want to be ahead of that game when that game starts," said Lieutenant Andre De La Renza. "Fire was here before humans were ever in this area. It's going to be here after."

Over the last three days, crews have been combing through two acres of land removing debris and vegetation to create a shaded fuel break. That will keep a fire from quickly spreading and even minimize the probability of a fire igniting in the first place.

"This keeps it in case anybody's going by, someone improperly throws away a cigarette, if there's a lightening strike, if there's sparks from any type of electrical things, it's going to reduce the chance of that fire growing in intensity and endangering households around here, as well as those endangered species," said De La Renza. 

Both the golden cheeked warbler and black capped vireo make their nests in the Balcones Canyon Land Preserve trees. The fuel break will be in a 60-foot perimeter of homes near the land, so mitigating fire risks helps protect the species habitat and the homes in the area.

"All the greenbelt here is just like a fire hazard, and it's sad to see the trees go, except a lot of them are cedars, so those aren't so bad to be gone," Sasser said.

This mitigation project is the first of many. Fire crews plan to create the same types of fuel breaks in other neighborhoods.

Fire crews also encourage homeowners to follow FireWise Communities principals to help protect their homes.